Biutiful (2011): Bardem Soulful Gravitas in Inarritu’s Dark and Grim Tale

“Biutiful” is a relentlessly grim, borderline depressing, but ultimately rewarding picture boasts yet another remarkable, Oscar-caliber performance from the versatile Javier Bardem (Oscar-winner for the 2007 Coen brothers “No Country for Old Men”).

Bardem, who  plays a dying middle-aged man, who seeks redemption in his wish to leave human legacy for his two young children, dservedly received a Best Actor nomination.

Having made two big-budget, star-driven Hollywood films (“21 Grams” with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts and the Oscar-nominated “Babel”), the talented Mexican director Alexandro Gonzales Innaritu is back to his origins with a smaller, more intimate, Spanish speaking drama, “Biutiful,” which recalls in several ways his stunning feature debut, “Amores Perros.”

As co-written by Innaritu, “Biutiful” is the story of a tragic hero, an ordinary man named Uxbal, who is in a state of rapid decline, or free fall. For reasons that are not made entirely clear, Uxbal is connected with the afterlife—he senses the real danger of his imminent death and knows what its impact would be on his family.

The movie describes Uxbal’s daily struggles with the harsh surrounding reality, and the forces of fate, which work against him in his effort to forget and forgive the elements that define his seedy, unhappy life.
Tematically and visually, “Biutiful” is a film about darkness as it defines the existence of Uxbal in almost everything he does, including his dubious way of making a living.
A single father, Uxbal lives a desperate life, not just because he has to take crtae of his children but also because his estranged mentally ill, bi-polar wife is still in love with him, hoping to reunite and come back to his life.
Close to hitting the bottom, blessed with streetsmarts and strong survival instincts, he makes a living by supplying cheap, illegal Chinese labor for exploitative sweatshops and construction work. He’s also dealing in Barcelona’s black market, and knows how to manipulate (and bribe) the police and the city’s officials.
Like Matt Damon in Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” Uxbal has the gift of seeing and communicating with recently deceased individuals (including children) and make a quick buck out of bereaved mothers and fathers who had lost their loved ones.

The narrative is punctuated by periodic visits to his doctors, upon being informed that he suffers from terminal cancer and might have only a few months (or weeks) to live. Innaritu asks us viewers: How do you handle such a dreadful piece of information? How do you restructure the rest of your life?

Structurally, “Biutiful” could not have been more different from the globe?trotting “Babel,” which was composed of and multiple lines, fractured structures and crossing narratives.
Each of the films Innaritu has made was shot in a different language and in a different country. In contrast, set in a single city, the multi-cultural, multi-racial and national Barcelona, “Biutiful” is dominated by one character, one consistent point of view, and a straight, progressive narrative structure that ends, logically, with Uxbal’s death.
Using a musical analogy, Innaritu has described “Babel” as an opera, and Biutiful as a requiem, and you can see why. “Biutiful” has a linear story and characters whose actions shape the narrative, while using a tragic-melodramatic sensibility.
The movie is framed by a symmetrical beginning and ending, in which Uxbal explains to his daughter the origins of his ring, before handing it to her, as an icon of the family’s continuous survival