Life is hard and getting harder in Biutiful, the new film by Alejandro González Iñárritu set among surprisingly (to me, at least) down-at-heel areas of Barcelona. Javier Bardem, terrifying in No Country For Old Men and insouciantly charismatic in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, plays the central character Uxbal, and he doesn’t half look dishevelled and ill. Uxbal is scraping out an existence in the black market, trying to organise and protect gangs of illegal African and Chinese immigrants while looking after his two children and suffering from an ominous medical disorder. He’s actually the most sorted adult character in the film – everyone else he comes across is disadvantaged and desperate, from his unstable estranged wife to the bosses of the sweatshop where dodgy goods are produced to be flogged on street corners. The film’s shot in an appropriately raw and gritty style, with plenty of snatched handheld footage that takes place in public city locations.
So, this is undeniably a tough watch and I haven’t even mentioned some deeply grim plot twists yet. It’s far however from being unremittingly bleak and credit for this must be given to the screenwriters, who never push the narrative into gratuitous nastiness and succeed in rounding out even the most initially unsympathetic characters, and to Bardem, who gives a fairly magnificent performance as the undoubtedly morally compromised but basically kind and occasionally noble lead, navigating his way through impossibly harsh choices as well as he can. There’s also an intriguing and subtly played out plot thread about Uxbal’s ability to commune with the recently dead that adds a spiritual dimension to the piece and helps to temper the drabness and misery going on elsewhere. Iñárritu’s previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) have all made a point of messing around with timelines and geography, but he reigns this tendency in for Biutiful, which plays out in a traditional linear fashion, with the exception of the pre-credits sequence, which seems cryptic until it recurs later in the film, by which time it has gained a powerful emotional resonance. Definitely recommended, but reserve some recovery time.