From Mary Burgan
Biutiful is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Moreover, Javier Bardem as its main character deserves his Oscar nomination, and perhaps the statue itself, for his performance. The film is nominated for best foreign language film, and I would vote for it in that category, even though I’ve not had the chance to review the other nominees.
Alejandro González Iñárritu, its director, has created a mysterious and compelling world in Biutiful, one that bears comparison to the imagined worlds created by the three other master international filmmakers in my personal pantheon — Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa.
Earlier pre-Oscar 2011 reviews from Mary: The Town, Animal Kingdom: Crime Runs in the Family; Why You Should See Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole; Grit and Bone: Oscar Nominates Strong Teen-Aged Girls; The King’s Speech an Oscar Picture for Colin Firth; Chasing the Oscar Buzz: Part 2 (The Fighter); and Chasing the Oscar Buzz: Part 1 (Toy Story and The Kids Are Alright).
Which is not to say that the film will please everyone. This is a “global” film, like Iñárritu’s Babel (2006), though it does not travel, as that film did, from Morocco to Mexico to Japan. Everything happens in Barcelona, but the inhabitants of that city’s poor neighborhoods come from around the world. The hero of Biutiful is a fundamentally decent man who makes a living by hustling odd jobs and drugs and making deals to exploit illegal workers from places like China, Africa, and Thailand — that host of “guest” workers who live on the margins of every great city.
Moving among these populations with Bardem’s character, Uxbal, as he seeks to redeem his own life, Biutiful is a long (147 minutes), and sometimes confusing mix of images and sounds and behaviors. Some critics have found that mix so unrelentingly depressing as to be unwatchable. I found it demanding, but made bearable by the fact that Uxbal — stricken with cancer that he knows will kill him — is so obviously attached to the full spectrum of peoples and things in his life that he hates to leave it. Confused but also compelled by his approaching death, he tries to make things better.
Along with the magnificent Bardem, there are other actors in Biutiful whose performances are deeply moving and redeeming. I am thinking about Maricel Álvarez, the Argentine actress, who plays the bi-polar wife of the dying hero. And the terrific youngsters (Hanaa Bouchaib as Ana and Guillermo Estrella as Mateo) who play his two children. They have eyes that manage to show love for their erratic mother and wonder about what is happening to their father. These are all together in a supper-table scene halfway through the movie that is both comic and poignant, summing up the relationships that center this complex tale of suffering, loss, and redemption.
Iñárritu is intent on portraying moments of grace as well as horrors, and the fact that some of his characters, who barely cling to the fringes of a bustling, modern European city, are indeed beautiful lightens their brief moments on earth. At one point, Uxbal remarks that the stars his wife sees are merely the sparks of her own mind, but they are her stars, after all, and the film seems to sponsor them.
There is a vision here, one that many may find too melancholy, self-indulgent in its sadness. I found the sadness to be poetic in the deep sense of that word because it faces the transience of life, but manages to bathe that transience in both mystery and sweetness.
Biutiful seems to me to exist beyond awards. It is a very great film.