Sicky clairvoyant Barcelona
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.