Biutiful— beautiful, misspelled. But ‘beautiful’ barely begins to describe this breathtaking film, which will undoubtedly receive an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It is not too much to say that within the film are all the components of life itself. The sublime and the profane, the worst and best of human behavior. . . . the hope and trust of illegal immigrants working in an airless room, the raw pornography against the pounding disco beat of a nightclub where naked women swarm like snakes in a pit, the sweet happiness in the shining eyes of a child, the fragile beauty seen in the swirling flight of starlings in the sky. The director Alejandro González Iñárritu (who also wrote the screenplay) is known for such ‘slice of life’ gritty movies as 21 Grams, Amores Perros and Babel, which he also wrote. In Biutiful, once again he shows us a segment of society that perhaps many of us would rather not see or know too much about. And yet we look, because we know we have to. It is a version of ourselves reflected. It takes us to the underworld, where getting through the day is a challenge and heaven and hell are as inexorably linked as our own reflections in the mirror are to our beings.
How to describe such a film? It’s the story of human struggle, love, and death–in all its manifestations. Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a man caught in a downward spiral, trapped in his own hell and that of others in his sphere. Uxbal can speak to the dead and hear them as their souls leave the earth. A victim of the corruption of the world in which he lives, he seeks to escape the manacles that chain him to eternal damnation. His entire world is caving in on him. He tries to do good, but in the process causes a situation so horrific that no man could possibly survive it unscathed. Where is salvation for this man?
To say that Javier Bardem is brilliant in this role is like saying that Michaelangelo did a great job with the Sistine Chapel. Words seem like nothing more than silly off-target darts being thrown at some evasive bullseye. What Bardem achieves in this role is true art. His role reveals such depth of character, such stature of soul and empathy that it is difficult to imagine he is actually able to do what he does. Cutting into himself with a ferocity, digging so deep with a determination that very few actors of his generation or any before him could achieve. The demands of the role are excruciating. There are no ‘easy’ scenes. Each one has levels and layers, often imperceptible to us until later when we remember what we saw before and understand.
There is a scene where Uxbal is talking to his father. We don’t know it’s his father, but what strikes us is the obvious love Uxbal feels for the man. How does Bardem reveal that exactly? With a look? The tone of his voice? A lingering stare? Perhaps none of these. It is the magic of Bardem’s performance. That’s all we really know. Where the character has taken over the man who plays him. As if Bardem is but an instrument manifesting what the character Uxbal tells him to do.
Poetry in the gutter. Vulgarity revered and disemboweled. This is characteristic of much of Iñárritu’s work. And it is certainly at work here. Bardem embodies this. We see him move about his world in sweat, in blood. We can almost smell the stink of his body and yet he is a force to be dealt with. He continues with the single-mindedness of a bull in the ring. He is a man with all the emotions that make up humanity. The love he feels for his wife, his children, of life itself are seen in utter magnificence, even as he moves through the corruption of his brother’s world, his own world–looking for a way out when he knows there isn’t one.
Biutiful isn’t the kind of film you leave behind in the theater. It stays with you, gnaws at you. Because of its statement of the human condition and human existence. It’s a deeply disturbing film for this reason, because we wonder why life is difficult for some, perhaps for all of us. Uxbal knows the human condition, because he speaks to the dead. He helps them pass into the afterlife. He knows many of their stories as well as his own. He is a metaphor for humanity.
Painfully demanding, almost impossible to play in parts, the role of Uxbal should earn Javier Bardem the Oscar for Best Actor. In fact, it’s a pity that other actors are competing in the same category, because Bardem’s performance is in a category of its own.
When she’s not writing, you’ll find Francine swimming, hiking, practicing yoga, and an assortment of other activities to keep her out of trouble–most recently creating an app, vinOrganica California, a guide to wineries in California that use organic grapes. It’s available on the iTunes store, and you can learn more about it at www.vinorganica.com.