Uxbal is an illegal immigrant trafficker, a divorced and devoted father, and can communicate with the dead. He’s also dying of cancer. Biutiful, a film that could have easily gotten lost in sentimentality and gimmicks, actually manages to create a moving and complex portrait of a man in his last days.
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture and Best Actor for Javier Bardem, Biutiful is the latest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film brings focus to the humanist theme present in much of Iñárritu’s work. Unlike 2006’s Babel, a sprawling and preachy mess that got lost in its numerous plots, Biutiful holds several elements together by focusing on a single character.
Uxbal (Bardem) is a father figure for a lot of people. His two children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) cling to their father's saintliness in contrast to the flakiness and irresponsibility of their estranged mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez). More childish than her children, Marambra makes several heartbreaking appearances as she tries to overcome her bipolar disorder and past addictions to rejoin the family. In addition to his dramatic home life, Uxbal makes shady deals with Chinese labor bosses and helps African immigrants adapt to the city, even letting a young Senegalese mother, Ige (Diaryatou Daff) and her son move into his apartment.
He also makes money on the side by communicating with the recently deceased and helping them on their way to heaven. When Uxbal does his work, the voices of the dead can be heard in whispers and glimpses of their souls can be seen on the ceilings. Because of the skill of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, these scenes, rather than seeming incredibly out of place, actually fit with the film’s raw and uncompromising view of an industrial city.
Javier Bardem is what really makes this film work. He masters a variety of emotions, from feeling overwhelmingly guilty and responsible for several accidental murders, to powerfully and angrily wrestling Mateo from the hands of Marambra after he has caught her emotionally and physically abusing his young son. However, it’s in Uxbal’s submission to prostate cancer that the skill and control with which he acts becomes most clear. Rather than dwelling on his impending death, the story continues moving forward with its relentless barrage of arrests, murders, and abuse. Uxbal’s fate is neither devoid of emotion nor dripping with it, and when he finally passes, it’s in a scene of great fatherly tenderness, lightened by the fact that his affairs are in order.
However, it’s clear that without its star, the film would quickly plunge into nothingness. Uxbal brings together several disparate elements into a cohesive whole, seamlessly integrating the gritty realism of illegal immigrant trafficking with his supernatural ability to commune with the dead and with his overwhelming love for his children. In the hands of a lesser actor, the film would likely have gotten bogged down in the tragedy of Uxbal’s death, the horrors of modern urban life, and the hopelessness of his children's future without their father.
Biutiful, despite the stark and melancholy realism of its cinematography, its depressing subject matter and haunting imagery, wants to show us that life is beautiful. Interspersed in the murk are moments of simplicity and happiness: Marambra telling her children the story of how she met Uxbal, and Ige’s care for Ana and Mateo. Even Uxbal’s integrity, maintained throughout his numerous trials, is a testament to the human capacity for compassion. Instead of merely creating a work of unbearable sadness and cynicism, Iñárritu and Bardem succeed in showing us the beauty of everyday life.