Marked by a powerful performance from Javier Bardem and a steady accretion of harrowing details, “Biutiful” represents something of a departure for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, even as it confirms the pervasive bleakness of his worldview. Less invested in themes of fate and convergence than his previous work, this gritty, slow-burning melodrama nonetheless offers a very long descent into a private purgatory, and its scant emotional rewards can’t shake off the sense of a prodigiously gifted filmmaker stuck in a grim rut. Even with some critical support, the predominantly Spanish-language film will prove a tough challenge for distribs and auds.
Co-written by Inarritu with Argentine-born scribes Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone, “Biutiful” is Inarritu’s first feature after his widely publicized split with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. As such, the film has none of the structural intricacy and temporal gamesmanship that defined their three collaborations (“Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”); with the exception of a whispery prologue, the story advances from start to finish in linear fashion. Yet the style is unmistakably Inarritu’s, characterized by a raw visual kineticism that imparts a rough, jagged quality to the narrative, as well as an overall heaviness of spirit that comes to feel like a millstone around the viewer’s neck over the course of nearly 2 1/2 hours.
Our guide through this maelstrom of crime, punishment and mortality is Uxbal (Bardem), a crook with a conscience operating in the back alleys and underground factories of Barcelona. The script makes little effort to sort out Uxbal’s various rackets involving Senegalese drug dealers, Chinese sweatshop laborers and a building scheme related to the cemetery where Uxbal’s father now rests. But pic takes pains to observe that Uxbal — unlike his rowdy brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) or cruel partner-in-crime Hai (Taisheng Cheng) — treats the exploited workers with respect.
Crucially, he’s also a family man: Sometimes tough but mostly tender with his two kids, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), Uxbal takes a harder tack with their boozy, bipolar mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez, terrifically volatile), from whom he’s separated. Though not above fits of violent anger, Uxbal has a keen understanding of human nature, an instinctive knowledge of how to handle difficult situations and coax the best out of others. He also appears to be plugged into higher realms, specializing in guiding the spirits of the dead for the consolation of grieving families — a sideline that, tellingly, the film doesn’t view as a scam.
When Uxbal is told he has cancer and thus only months to live (a diagnosis signaled by one too many shots of bloody urination), “Biutiful” becomes a methodical study in escalating chaos as he rushes to set his messy affairs in order. With the exception of a Senegalese woman (Diaryatou Daff) he hires to watch his kids, the adults around him prove consistently incompetent and/or untrustworthy; in keeping with Inarritu’s penchant for guilt-tripping his characters with deterministic melodrama, even Uxbal’s well-intentioned actions go fatally awry.
It’s a tale of fatherhood under extreme duress, and Bardem’s intensely physical and, indeed, beautifully controlled performance makes clear that, for all the many contradictory hats Uxbal wears, he’s a loving dad first and foremost. Wearing his gray-streaked hair long and looking increasingly haggard as things proceed, the actor seems to be shouldering not just the weight of the film but the weight of the world; when a precious smile flickers briefly across Uxbal’s face, you feel you could warm your hands over it.
Inasmuch as it’s supposed to be a focused character study, the film falters when it tries to flesh out Uxbal’s cohorts; a subplot involving Hai and his no-good gay lover (Luo Jin) feels especially misguided, even offensive in the way it seems to equate homosexuality with venality. And while “21 Grams” and “Babel” drew as much criticism as praise for their storytelling gimmicks, their overweening grandiosity did allow for a degree of energy and emotional impact that’s largely lacking here. Apart from isolated moments of grace and a stirring finish, the film is dry, and some of the devices it deploys to draw the viewer into Uxbal’s psyche — including one sound effect that suggests microphone feedback raised to an ear-splitting crescendo — prove merely alienating.
Among other things, “Biutiful” means to offer a grungy corrective to more romantic representations of Barcelona, and on this level it succeeds; the city has rarely looked less inviting than it does here, a hotbed of crime and immigrant labor made atmospheric and tactile by Rodrigo Prieto’s superb handheld camerawork. Along with Prieto, Inarritu’s strong returning collaborators here include composer Gustavo Santaolalla and editor Stephen Mirrione, as well as buddy-countrymen Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, credited as associate producers.
Title is an oblique reference to a cute misspelling by Ana; in that respect, consider “Biutiful” the grinding arthouse equivalent of “The Pursuit of Happyness.”