PLOT: Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a small time hustler, who makes his living supplying illegal immigrants to work in the sweatshops of Spain. Barely scrapping by, with two children to support, and a bi-polar, drug-addled ex-wife, Uxbal discovers that he’s dying of cancer. With only months to live, Uxbal has to put his affairs in order, and find someone who can provide for his children once he’s gone.
REVIEW: BIUTIFUL is one of the most oppressively depressing films I’ve seen in a while. Seriously folks- this is not a barrel of laughs. Compared to this, BLUE VALENTINE is a wacky romp. Of course, that’s not to say BIUTIFUL is great piece of work, which it certainly is. Most of this is due to a truly mesmerizing performance from Bardem, which proves that his dark-horse Oscar nomination was richly deserved.
It’s the latest film from Alejandro González Iñárritu, who previously helmed three near-masterpieces, AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS, and BABEL. While I’m not sure BIUTIFUL is quite up to that standard, it’s nonetheless a pretty powerful piece of work. Movies about dying are nothing new, but in Iñárritu hands, it never gets maudlin.
Uxbal is no hero. He’s a loving father, and essentially a kind man, but as it’s pointed out by several characters in the film, he’s an exploiter. He makes his living off the backs of illegal immigrants. He sets them up to work in sweatshops, and even has them housed in the sweatshop basement- heated only by the cheap heaters Uxbal picks up in a bargain. While he takes no joy in their misfortune, and shows compassion for his workers, you can’t help but feel Uxbal is part of the problem, not the solution.
That said, he’s not exactly living in luxury. He shares a tiny apartment with his children, which gets even more crowded when he takes in the wife and child of a recently deported worker. He’s so broke that in order to get a subway ride, he has to sneak in on someone else’s fare. His neer’do well brother is no help, with him spending his time doing lines of coke in nightclubs, while not nailing Bardem’s estranged wife behind his back. Before his diagnosis, Uxbal’s position is already dire. After, it’s truly hopeless.
What makes his impending death even worse is that Uxbal knows damn well there’s no one to look after his kids. He attempts a reconciliation with his wife, Maramba (Maricel Álvarez in a strong part), and tries hard to make it work, even though she totally unreliable, selfish, and the last person you’d even think could take care of two children. He does his best to improve their situation, but no matter what he does, he just makes things worse.
This is a stunning role for Bardem, and as the film goes on, his physical and emotional deterioration becomes truly disturbing to watch. Don’t expect any happy third act reversal. This is a dark ride, made even more convincing by the fact that Bardem never once hits a false note, or even seems to be “acting”.
Of course, I can’t say I “enjoyed” BIUTIFUL, but rather endured it, although by the time the credits rolled I felt like the journey Iñárritu took us on was worthwhile. If it hits one false note, it’s an awkward subplot that suggests Uxbal has the ability to communicate with the dead, which seemed like a rather corny twist for something that otherwise feels so real. Still- that’s a minor flaw, or perhaps not even a flaw at all, as I suppose Iñárritu has his reasons for including it- although I must say, I don’t quite get this part of the film and really seems out of left field. Still it’s a tiny part of an otherwise excellent film- and this is something that demands to be seen, if only for Bardem’s brilliant performance.