Anything That Can Happen, Does Happen to Javier Bardem in Biutiful
By Robert Silva
Ordinary life is its own kind of survival story in this gritty drama from the director of The Revenant.
One of the great gifts of cinema is the face of actor Javier Bardem. Craggy and charismatic, worn-out but often with a hard-bitten smile cresting on the lips, it’s a versatile instrument that’s put to hypnotic use in Biutiful, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant). The movie stays for most of its running time with the actor, who plays a terminally ill father wandering the gritty streets of Barcelona, trying to figure out a way to ensure a future for his children. Bardem commands the screen, fighting everything life throws at him.
With a ratty ponytail and an air of frenzied desperation, Uxbal (Bardem) lives a mercenary existence as a broker between African street merchants and the Chinese laborers who produce the knockoffs they sell. He’s also the single father to a young son and daughter, whose bipolar mother (Maricel Álvarez) floats on the margins of their existence, and is fooling around with his lush brother. It’s a lot, even before Uxbal gets his grim diagnosis.
Did I mention Uxbal can also see the dead? It’s a blessing, a curse, and an extra revenue stream as the grief-stricken thrust cash into his hand, looking for closure. This supernatural twist could throw the whole movie off kilter, but it fits. Rejecting horror movie vocabulary, the dead appear simply as bodies floating on ceilings. After all, Uxbal is a guy who moves between worlds.
Biutiful renders this slew of plotlines and side hustles with a cluttered naturalism, courtesy of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s hand-held camera, creating inspired but ramshackle compositions out of cramped, decaying apartments bearing little resemblance to the Barcelona of Instagram. Scenes begin in a doorway, move to a mirror, and then shift to the view out a grimy window where a character disappears down a narrowing street. It’s the dirty cousin to the maximalist choreographed shots of Iñárritu’s Birdman.
Most of the time the camera is trained on Bardem, whose character is faced with a maze of impossible choices. At one point, he gets back together with his unhinged ex-wife. It’s understandable: His children will soon be without a father, and they need someone. No one knows he only has a few months to live. In one scene, the reunited family eats melted ice cream with their hands. For a while they’re whole again. We can read this all in Bardem’s face: He’s a man who knows this will soon be someone else’s bittersweet memory.
If a conventional movie is about a hero conquering obstacles, in Biutiful there are just too many obstacles for Bardem’s character to overcome. But watching as Uxbal tries to puzzle his way across life’s breaking ice is gripping. In the time he has left, is it even possible to live a “good life” or be a “good parent”? Let alone, as the movie progresses, stop a police crackdown on undocumented African immigrants, or a horrifying accident that negates all his good intentions? He’s past the point of the plot offering a solution. There’s a transcendent dimension to Bardem’s performance, and watching Biutiful, as his main task becomes trying to come to peace with a flawed world.
Uxbal’s transformation in the film is unhurried. Bit by bit we observe his relationship changing with his friends, his children and himself. He makes choices at the end of the film he would never make at the beginning. It might be easy to suppose that Uxbal’s impending death somehow simplifies his life. That he only has to live for the present. But, as a ghost whisperer, he knows there is some kind of afterlife. Maybe what he does matters more than ever. He just doesn’t know how much.
Bardem won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in Biutiful. One never knows exactly how exactly Uxbal feels about his life, except by intuition and observation. Viewers might be forgiven if, by the end, they think they can read the actor’s thoughts. Like the overstuffed tensions of real life, Biutiful doesn’t tell you what to make of it. But you want to keep watching. Incidentally, the title comes from Uxbal’s daughter’s misspelling of the English word beautiful. It’s all wrong, but that’s all right. We understand what it means.