Biutiful

Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib
Review: 4 stars (of five)

Biutiful has a lot going on and most of it is terribly depressing. It takes a certain willingness to engage a 130-minute movie that’s ultimately about one poor, dying man’s spiral around the drain of life, but if you’re willing to make that journey, director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Babel) presents a compelling portrait of the seedy side of Barcelona and one man’s life on the fringes of society—magnificently realized by Javier Bardem.

Bardem is divorced and raising two young children in the absence, for the most part, of their unstable and occasionally abusive mother. He makes money from the illegal immigrant community in Barcelona, providing goods, and making police payoffs, for African street vendors and finding off-book jobs for Chinese laborers. The film presents a complex view of this world—a loving Senegalese family just trying to survive, a pair of Chinese gangsters ruthlessly exploiting their smuggled-in workforce, corrupt cops who’ll take a payoff, but not when the street vendors are also moving drugs.

Through all this, Bardem is a good man trying to get by. He aims to make money, but he cares for the people he interacts with, tries to keep everyone safe, all the forces in this unbalanced world aligned. He’s a good man who cares about people, and he’s dying.

The film, laden with images and metaphors for death, follows Bardem on his last rounds as he tries to settle his affairs and, most importantly, care for his children. His own father died so early Bardem can’t remember his face, and he’s terrified his own children will forget him, too. As he moves through a world trying to help people, and himself, with vastly varying degrees of success, we see how small and fleeting a part he is of a great, corrupt machine.

Bardem was great as the emotionless psychopath in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, but his character here might find more in common with that film’s sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones—the man who talked about the world as an endless expanse of darkness, in which a good man’s job was to carry his own light a little ways forward, knowing it’ll never be enough.

Because Biutiful moves through this complex world that invokes human rights issues, global political issues and more, it’s tempting to look at the film for a statement. That would be a mistake. This is not a movie about the illegal immigrant world of Barcelona. It’s the story of one man trying to be good, and do good, at the point where law and society begin to collapse. It’s a personal portrait, and Bardem serves Iñárritu’s purpose magnificently.

The film has flaws—it’s a little long, it throws in a slight supernatural twist (Bardem’s got a little of what Matt Damon had in Hereafter) that arguably clutters things—but those are outweighed by its virtues, and the sum of the film’s parts exceeds those of 21 Grams or Babel. Biutiful is not up for Best Picture (though it is nominated for Best Foreign Film), though it is worthy. Bardem is nominated for Best Actor, and I would say (possibly excepting for Colin Firth in The King’s Speech, which I haven’t seen yet) he deserves it.