Javier Bardem and Hanaa Bouchaib as Ana star in "Biutiful." (Jose Haro / Roadside Attractions )
Javier Bardem is an actor who seems to walk with sorrow, an unspoken pain ever pooling in those eyes. Yet never has that vein of sadness been mined so deeply or so richly as in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Biutiful," an ethereal yet visceral meditation on living and dying.
With Bardem as the world-weary Uxbal, a cancer-ridden single father moving toward death, but far from done with life, Iñárritu has plumbed the most essential human drive — to protect the ones we love even when we know we must leave them behind. Yet for all the difficulties that beset Uxbal, and there are many beyond the disease that is intent on destroying him, the collaboration between actor and filmmaker ultimately gives us a story of hope, and from Bardem, a performance of staggering depth, unquestionably one of the year's best.
Iñárritu is a filmmaker who favors the dark side. His Oscar-nominated "Babel" in 2006 was a confluence of interconnected, border-crossing pain, while the detritus of dog fights and human carnage encircled a love story in "Amores Perros," his 2000 breakthrough. The Mexican-born director is also drawn to the racial and ethnic complexities that color modern times, issues that find a voice in all of his movies. "Biutiful" is the distillation of that vision into one man's journey, so there's a lot of weight for Bardem to carry and more pain that some moviegoers will want to bear.
The filmmaker, who wrote the screenplay with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, has made Uxbal's world a polyglot of Spanish, Chinese and Senegalese cultures that teem in a gritty corner of Barcelona. There is his mess of an ex-wife, Marambra (an exceptional Maricel Álvarez), passionate and funny but at the mercy of devastating bipolar mood swings, and his older brother and business partner Tito (Eduard Fernández), who finds new ways to use and betray him almost daily. They will all factor into the decisions he will make about the future of his children, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), with the two young actors giving them a wisdom and a worry beyond their years.
Iñárritu opens the film with a whisper, as father and daughter talk about a ring. First given by his grandfather to his grandmother, he is now entrusting it to her. We see only their hands. As she slips the ring off his finger and onto hers, the image shifts to a forest — the trees are bare, two men meet in the cold, an owl has fallen dead in the snow; there is a legend that comes with the owl that the girl knows, there are stories the father remembers from his childhood yet to tell her.
It's only a few minutes before the filmmaker pulls us out of that dreamy world, without a clue yet about the men in the woods, one of them Uxbal, or the girl with the ring. Shot with a stillness by Iñárritu's frequent collaborator, director of photography Rodrigo Prieto ("Brokeback Mountain"), the look is in stark contrast to the equally well realized cacophony that is to come.
With the whispers silenced, the world we are thrust into is harsh. Uxbal's face slick with sweat and pain, he lies on a hospital bed as a doctor finishes an exam and hands out a death sentence. From there we are propelled into the complex labyrinth of a dying man's final weeks.
Uxbal is fundamentally a grifter desperate to stash away what he can for his kids. Most of his time is spent as the middle man between an underground Chinese immigrant workforce making knockoff purses and the Senegalese street sellers of Barcelona who push them along with their drugs. Neither the people nor the trade is legal, which makes for a series of escalating tragedies that course through the film.
For a few dollars more, he'll serve as a go-between for the grieving and their dead, able to ease the transition to the other side, a talent which should help him with his looming end but never does. He is also the peacemaker between his children and their mother, and when peace fails he becomes their protector. All these subplots swirl around his central dilemma — how to reconcile his aching need for the father he never knew with the fact that his children will be orphaned soon.
It is somewhat unnerving just how at home Bardem is in this terrain. You can almost see the gravitational pull on Uxbal's body as the burdens pile up. Sometimes it seems as if Iñárritu is literally carving out his actor's heart, so tangible does Bardem make Uxbal's fears. Iñárritu has so much that he wants to say — too much, in fact, and the film's central weakness — that he has created an emotional tsunami for both the actors and the audience.
Redemption comes in the way the Bardem absorbs each blow his director metes out — acceptance, forgiveness and empathy made real. Ultimately, whatever "Biutiful" represents as a film, it is possibly more significant as an eloquent and intensely personal conversation between two singular artists.
MPAA rating: R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes, in Spanish with English subtitles
Playing: At AMC Century City