Biutiful Review
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Since Javier Bardem won his Oscar for playing sociopath Anton Chigurh in 2007’s No Country for Old Men, he seems to have become the ideal romantic lead (sans bowl cut, of course). He played opposite Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, and he teamed up with Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, and wife Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But there’s nothing particularly romantic—or especially beautiful, for that matter—about his role in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful.

Uxbal (Bardem) has always been connected to the dead. He has the ability to speak to the recently-deceased—and he uses his gift to guide them on their way (for a price, of course). But when he’s diagnosed with prostate cancer—and told that he only has a couple of good months left—he’s suddenly forced to face his own mortality.

As Uxbal struggles to accept his fate, his outlook changes, and he begins to see his life differently. He worries about his two children and their troubled mother, and he becomes concerned about the illegal immigrants whom he and his partners exploit to produce and sell knock-off goods. He’s determined to make things right before—like many of the spirits with whom he communicates—he leaves this world with unresolved issues.

It’s no surprise that Bardem has attracted attention for his emotional performance as the complex and conflicted Uxbal. In fact, if the film were in English (instead of Spanish), I have a feeling that he would have gotten more than just a couple of award nominations. He’s a talented actor, and he handles the challenging role with the right blend of strength and vulnerability.

Uxbal is an unusual character—a constant contradiction: a loving father who helps the grieving while, at the same time, exploiting the underprivileged. It’s almost impossible to get a grasp on such a incongruous character—so you’ll never really know what to think of him—but Bardem gives him the honesty and humanity needed to make you at least feel for him.

Still, Bardem’s noteworthy performance alone can’t resurrect this grim drama. Biutiful is a dismal and emotionally draining film—one that piles one heavy subject on top of another until it’s almost too much to bear. As if Uxbal’s terminal illness weren’t enough, there’s also the fact that his two adorable kids are about to be left to a completely unfit mother. He fears that they might someday forget him—or, worse, resent him for leaving, just as he and his brother resent their own father. And then there are the illegal immigrants, who endure horrible living conditions in an attempt to give their families better lives—or those who are caught and deported, their families left behind to fend for themselves. And just when you think it might get a little better, it gets even worse.

So don’t let the title fool you into expecting hearts and flowers and a fairy tale ending; Biutiful is a bleak and perplexing drama. Though Bardem gives a performance that is—at times—beautiful, watching it is likely to leave you in a pretty ugly mood.

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