Sicky clair­voy­ant Barcelona

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards For The New Mex­i­can

Biutiful, drama, rated R, in Span­ish with sub­ti­tles, Re­gal DeVargas, 3 chiles As we bat­ten down our bor­ders and build our fences and in­dulge in racial pro­fil­ing and pro­tec­tion­ist leg­is­la­tion, it may be com­fort­ing to know that we aren’t the only coun­try with an il­le­gal im­mi­grant prob­lem. It’s a sit­u­a­tion fa­mil­iar to any so­ci­ety with a stan­dard of liv­ing that is en­vi­able to oth­ers.

Uxbal ( Javier Bar­dem) is a hus­tler scram­bling to make a liv­ing among the il­le­gals in the im­mi­grant un­der­belly of Barcelona. He works as a fixer, keep­ing the cops off the backs of the Chi­nese, who run sweat­shops, and the Sene­galese, who sell their cheap knock­off wares and maybe a few drugs on the street cor­ners of Spain’s sec­ond largest city. He col­lects and dis­penses cash and me­di­ates prob­lems. He makes a few ex­tra bucks com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the dead for griev­ing loved ones, a tal­ent that is taken se­ri­ously by the movie but given no spe­cial sta­tus in the hi­er­ar­chy of Uxbal’s du­ties. And he is hop­ing to turn a profit on his fa­ther’s grave, over which a de­vel­oper wants to build a mall. He has a no-ac­count brother, a bipo­lar ex-wife, and a cou­ple of kids he is try­ing to raise with at least a nod­ding ac­quain­tance with man­ners, sta­bil­ity, and ed­u­ca­tion. There’s an added sense of ur­gency to all this, be­cause he’s also dy­ing of can­cer.

That Bar­dem makes this al­most bear­able is all you need to know about this ac­tor’s re­mark­able tal­ent. This is the Gone With the Wind of de­press­ing movies. At al­most two and a half hours, it is a trial by or­deal, a mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of the flesh as well as the spirit. And it’s not as if the movie weaves an in­tri­cate set of plots that


re­quire 148 min­utes to spin out. Col­lab­o­rat­ing with two new writ­ing part­ners, Ar­mando Bo and Ni­colás Gi­a­cabone, di­rec­tor Ale­jan­dro González Iñár­ritu is work­ing in a rel­a­tively lin­ear for­mat here, rather than us­ing the fre­netic cross-cuts of time, place, and story line that char­ac­ter­ized his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Guillermo Ar­riaga (such as

and Ba­bel). The two had a much-pub­li­cized fall­ing-out when Iñár­ritu com­plained that Ar­riaga was hog­ging too much credit for Ba­bel.

There is a bit of skip­ping around in time in Biutiful, pri­mar­ily in a ghostly open­ing in a pale, win­try for­est set­ting and in a whis­pered con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Uxbal and his daugh­ter about a ring. These are scenes that set up where the film is headed and that it reprises at the end. Oth­er­wise we fol­low Uxbal as he makes his des­per­ate way through day af­ter day and mis­ery af­ter mis­ery, min­gling with the poor and down­trod­den, try­ing to help, to make a buck, and to pro­vide for his chil­dren, whose present may not be much but whose fu­ture be­yond the short win­dow of his can­cer looks even bleaker.

In this cesspool of poverty, drugs, and hu­man ex­ploita­tion, you might ex­pect Uxbal to be a grim pres­ence, but Bar­dem in­vests him with glimpses of a saintly sweet­ness. It doesn’t turn his char­ac­ter cloy­ing, but it shines through in the smiles he shares with his kids, the at­tempts he makes to re­dis­cover hope in his mar­riage to Maram­bra (an ex­cel­lent Mari­cel Ál­varez), and his con­cern for the poor Sene­galese who dodge the cops and the Chi­nese work­ers packed into a base­ment dor­mi­tory.

If his in­ten­tions are mostly good, their out­comes are not al­ways happy, and they can be dis­as­trous. Uxbal has a con­science, which some­times makes his world more than he can bear. But he keeps go­ing be­cause there’s nowhere else to go, un­til he makes the ul­ti­mate jour­ney we know he will shortly have to un­der­take.

Uxbal’s abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with the de­parted is not a tal­ent he wel­comes but one he plies re­luc­tantly from time to time be­cause peo­ple press cash into his hands to hear a few words from their lost loved ones, and cash is some­thing he can­not af­ford to turn down. Like Ha­ley Joel Os­ment in The Sixth Sense, he sees dead peo­ple, and even when there aren’t ghoul­ish forms plas­tered to the ceil­ing of his ten­e­ment bed­room, the grisly rot of wa­ter dam­age spreads across it like a can­cer­ous tu­mor, re­mind­ing us of how lit­tle time he has left.

This is a pow­er­ful movie, and one that some­times shocks you with its beauty and its tragedy, while at other times it pum­mels you with its ex­cess. There are scenes of pow­er­ful im­pact, scenes that you will carry with you and re­play in your mind. But of course, that can only hap­pen if you see the movie. There are many rea­sons to see it, par­tic­u­larly Bar­dem’s ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance, which has earned him a best-ac­tor award from the Cannes fes­ti­val (the film has also been nom­i­nated for an Os­car in the for­eign-lan­guage cat­e­gory). The movie is repet­i­tive, painfully long, and re­lent­lessly de­press­ing. But it does of­fer the so­lace of a fairly peace­ful-look­ing life af­ter death to fol­low hell on earth, plus an en­dear­ing pho­netic mis­spelling of the word beau­ti­ful and the cryp­tic and in­trigu­ing in­for­ma­tion that when owls die they spit a hair­ball from their beak. I sus­pect the an­swer to ev­ery­thing is wrapped up in that hair­ball, if you can just un­ravel it.

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