Javier Bardem Takes a Journey to an End in ‘Biutiful’

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CHICAGO – In the midst of life’s journey, what may seem like a long time suddenly can become short, what seems like the routine suddenly becomes desperate. The theme of these changes and the effect on a dying soul is explored in “Biutiful.”

The film is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, best known for “Babel” and “Amores Perros,” and continues with his exploration of happenstance and chance encounters, this time fueled by a man who literally feels his life ebbing away.

Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a shady character on the streets of Barcelona, Spain, who acts as a facilitator for black market immigration labor. He is raising two children on his own, after separating from his wife Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) due to her addiction problems. Despite copious sums of cash, Uxbal prefers a more modest existence, mostly because his Barcelona is one of the shadows and squalor, areas not frequented by tourists.

He finds out that he is dying, a rapidly spreading cancer. The revelation allows him to assess all areas of his life, and to find a caregiver for his children. He even takes in Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the wife of an African colleague who has been gunned down in a round of immigration raids. He is attempting to make amends, even finding space heaters for a dank labor camp hidden in one of the sweatshops in Barcelona.

Part of his plan involves the reconciliation with Marambra, in hopes of her taking the children once he is gone. But that goes awry as the childish woman has no concept of child-rearing, and it is actually Ige who stands by his side throughout the crisis. When a horrible accident occurs at the sweatshop, all of Uxbal’s sorrows seem to rise to the surface. He needs a sense of redemption from a life he feels guilty about, before he dies.

Everyday People: Javier Bardem as Uxbal and Hanaa Bouchaib as Daughter Ana in ‘Biutiful’
Everyday People: Javier Bardem as Uxbal and Hanaa Bouchaib as Daughter Ana in ‘Biutiful’
Photo credit: Jose Haro for Focus Features

This film rises and falls on the shoulders of Javier Bardem. He carries the burden of his circumstances through every frame. It is a sublime performance, deserved of his recent Best Actor nomination for next month’s Academy Awards. It is more than his performance that makes it memorable, he even physically wears out as the disease takes its toll. As life in the story continues to bear down, his body actually becomes smaller as he tries to correct everything. If there is one counter critique to his performance, there is a sameness to his emotional track, but given what is happening to him in the story it’s a rational reaction.

Maricel Álvarez, playing the drug addicted ex-wife, turns in a complex portrayal for what is essentially a wicked character. Proving that not all people who are parents can be nurturing, Álvarez communicates Marambra’s flaws not by being completely repellent, but subtly falling apart under the renewed attention to her duties. She precisely embodied all the tics and mannerisms of a duplicitous addict, and her character compliments the desperation of what’s happening quite effectively.

The background story, about illegal immigration and sweatshop labor, is as crushing as Uxbal’s slow fade. Iñárritu explores the darkest pits of the Barcelona slums, and exposes a hell-hole of dark human nature on both the facilitators of the human cattle (mostly from Africa and China) and the victims of what is essentially slavery. This is what’s going on today, caused by the accident of birthplace, poverty and capitulation. Even as Barden’s character does an act of random kindness, it still has a karmatic backfiring. This whole scenario comes off as truly desperate and very harsh.

The Barcelona that is shown as the landscape where Uxbal will make his final steps is not the town depicted in the tourist areas. It is all slums, people on top of each other and an industrial wasteland. There was no lightness in this version of Spain, only dark corners and sleazy strip clubs. Much was made about a family trip to escape to the mountains, and given this setting escape would be preferable. In dying perhaps, Uxbal was finding a way out of there.

Wild and Untamable: Maricel Álvarez as Marambra in ‘Biutiful’
Wild and Untamable: Maricel Álvarez as Marambra in ‘Biutiful’
Photo credit: Jose Haro for Focus Features

There is a cryptic scene in the beginning, an exchange of jewelry between Uxbal and his daughter. It is followed by a dream or a vision of an alternate reality. This mysterious beginning is replaced by the main story, and then comes up again at the end. I couldn’t help but think that maybe Uxbal is on some sort of psychological loop, that in dying he will have to keep applying his energies toward redemption for eternity.

We are all victims of our own circumstances. Whether we take the road with a nod towards the eternal afterlife, or fight and claw through the one true reality we are given in a search for forgiveness, it is what it is. That quality of absolution, despite how it is achieved, can be beautiful.

“Biutiful” continues its limited release in Chicago on January 28th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Javier Bardem, Hanaa Bouchaib, Maricel Álvarez and Diaryatou Daff. Screenplay by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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