Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: "Biutiful"

Lyrical, poetic and heartbreaking, "Biutiful" is not for everyone. This sprawling (2½ hour), occasionally dream-like Spanish-language drama from writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," "21 Grams") explores one man's journey toward death in the grimy underworld of Barcelona.

It's the story of Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem in another virtuoso performance, who's a middleman between illegal immigrants and companies that want to employ them on the sly. A sensitive soul, he truly cares about these foreigners from Senegal or China or some other shore -- though he makes sure to get his cut.

Uxbal is the divorced father of two, with an ex-wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who's desperate to reinsert herself into their lives, claiming to have overcome her bipolar disorder. She's a fountain of neediness and capriciousness, promising to take the children on wonderful vacations one minute and abusing them the next.

Meanwhile, Uxbal is dying of prostate cancer. He endeavors to keep it a secret as he busily attempts to put his affairs in order. Chief among them is finding better working conditions for a couple dozen Chinese slaving away in a basement sweatshop.

To add to Iñárritu's strange, bitter -- but nourishing -- brew, there's an element of the supernatural: Uxbal is able to communicate with the recently dead, and help along their way those souls reluctant to journey into the afterlife.

This last piece is the one that doesn't seem to fit the puzzle. Unlike Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter," the main character's ability to communicate with the dead is not the centerpiece of the story. It is, in fact, so tertiary that we often forget about it for long stretches, only to be surprised when some boogum pops up in the corner to remind us of Uxbal's visions.

I can't help wondering what would be lost if Iñárritu, who shares screenwriting credit with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, had simply written these distracting ghost story interludes out of the movie. Not much, I suspect.

Much more gripping are Uxbal's interactions with the various denizens of the backstreets. There's Hai (Cheng Tai Shen), owner of the sweat shop and Uxbal's partner, when it suits them both. Hai is exploiting the illegal workers, of course, but he's not a heartless thug. His own family lives above the workers in the same building, and no doubt he believes he's giving them a chance to one day move up like his kin have.

Then there are a group of African street merchants who hock their wares to the passersby. Uxbal negotiates with the police -- aka, bribes them -- to leave them alone. But the Africans keep intruding into the tonier sections of town, and are even dealing drugs on the side.

After her husband is arrested and threatened with deportation, a woman named Ige (Diaryatou Daff) comes to live with Uxbal and his children. At first he takes her under his wing because he feels guilty about the arrest. But as his physical condition worsens his need, not just for assistance but empathy, comes to reflect that of Marambra.

The relationship between Uxbal and Marambra is the most painful, and best thing about "Biutiful." There's an ocean of hurt between them, a lifetime of accusations and recrimination. Their love remains strong, but Uxbal knows having her around will always prove harmful to the children.

Uxbal is a fascinating mix of incongruities, the hard-heartedness he shows toward his ex-wife and sometimes even his children, contrasted with his fumbling attempts to help immigrants who don't have a friend. "Biutiful" is a troubling, exquisite vision of human contradictions.

3.5 stars out of four

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