There is a sculptural quality to Javier Bardem in Biutiful. Seen in profile his head bears a remarkable resemblance to that of an Easter Island statue, with the bridge of his nose plunging straight from his brow as if aligned by a plumb-bob. Hints of Greek statuary can also be found: Bardem portraying someone suffering the torments of vengeful gods as anguish, despair, and ultimately: resignation, play across his face.
Bardem (Oscar winner for No Country For Old Men) is the current go-to guy for Hollywood directors in need of a strong-jawed Latin "type" (a noble lineage which includes Ricardo "Khan" Montalban, and Antonio "Zorro" Banderas). But Biutiful is no Hollywood film, and remains mercifully free of happy endings and last-minute redemptions.
Directed by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros, 2000; 21 Grams, 2003; Babel, 2006) Biutiful takes us into the sordid underbelly of present day Barcelona, an underworld in which Bardem's character, Uxbal, is just another mid-level player in a complicated game, scrambling to stay afloat.
This is a world we have seen before in films like Dirty, Pretty Things (2002, dir: Stephen Frears) and Gomorrah (2008, dir: Matteo Garrone), a world hidden just beneath the polished surface of modern Europe, the "public face" that is presented to us in the tourist brochures.
What these films depict is the unsavory side of global capitalism, an arena in which the poor of all nations are little more than pawns in business dealings, deals which see them only as a source of cheap labor for unscrupulous businessmen trying to cut corners, as merchandise to be smuggled across national boundaries, with no legal protection from those who exploit them and put their lives at risk for profit.
And yet, as depicted by Iñárritu, even in this world we find that there are shades of grey at all levels; nobody in Biutiful wears a hat which is purely black or purely white. Yes: by taking a cut on the human trafficking transactions he facilitates, Uxbal is exploiting the illegal immigrants he provides to Barcelona's back alley sweatshops and construction sites. But in his mind he is also helping them: by finding them a job. Diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, Uxbal constantly walks along this ethical knife-edge, while struggling to keep his own life from disintegrating entirely.
But to me it feels as if Iñárritu tries too hard to make Biutiful A Serious Film of Significance and Import, and there were many moments when I felt manipulated. The effort also shows in a pacing which plods at times, and in an unnecessarily complicated narrative. There's an entire plot point which I feel could have been eliminated: it is suggested that Uxbal has some sort of ability to communicate with the spirits of the recently departed (a la Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense). When you watch Biutiful, ask yourself whether the core of the film would be affected if that story angle had been axed.
For my money Garrone's Gomorrah gives a better sense of the harrowing realities hiding beneath the surface of the black market economy, while Pedro Almodóvar (in films like All About My Mother and Talk to Her) has been more successful at revealing the emotional heart of the demi-monde.
As noted elsewhere, at 147 minutes Biutiful is a significant time commitment. Javier Bardem's performance, though, is outstanding (he received the Best Actor award at Cannes for the role). If you admired any of Iñárritu's other films (or if you're simply an admirer of those Easter Island heads I mentioned) then Biutiful is definitely worth seeing.
There are no more screenings of Biutiful remaining during this year's VIFF, but you can be sure that it will be back in theatres in general release very soon.