Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is separated from his volatile wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) and has custody of his two young children, preteen Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and the younger Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). He eeks out an illegal living on the streets of Barcelona as a go-between for illegal African and Chinese migrants, which turns out badly. He also makes a bit of pocket money as a kind of go between the recently deceased and their family. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Uxbal is afraid for his children's future as his conflicts with Marambra are unresolved.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Dedicated to his father, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful is a direct cinematic contrast to Babel (2006) in style, structure and setting. Here, we are mostly in the backsteets of suburban Barcelona, not hopping the globe. The story is linear and focused on the central character of Uxbal (Javier Bardem) not time-shifted and multi-focused (but it's about the same length).
The story itself is simple enough, but it carries much baggage: themes range from fatherhood to spirituality, crime and morality to corruption and survival. From the enigmatic opening scene in a snow covered forest - which we only understand at the end of the film - Iñárritu takes us through a maze of conflicts and domestic tribulations in which Uxbal is always a central figure. He lives on the wrong side of the law but adores his children and wants to be a good father. He is, too, a contrast to their mother Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) who is bipolar- and lacks motherly devotion. She wants to but can't be what her children need. She loves Uxbal but also wants to have fun "like a whore".
That relationship is the most dynamic, while Uxbal's relationship with his kids is the most heartwarming. His relationship with his criminal associates is the least interesting but it carries the seeds of tragedy. His pursuits on the street also provide a subplot which dovetails neatly and appealingly into the main story when one of the migrant mothers is both sheltered and needed by Uxbal.
There is so much material in this screenplay (written by three people) it could have made two different films; the one about Uxbal as a loving father destined to die too early, another about Uxbal the anti hero to illegal migrant workers whose good intentions lead to a terrible accident.
Bardem is superb as Uxbal, his every emotion carved into his face and eyes, his conflicted, guilt ridden but loving character effectively portrayed. It's such a complex man, such a piece of invisible acting. Alvarez is electrifying as Marambra, a wreck waiting to fall apart, yet her insight into her weaknesses makes her - eventually - less distasteful and better understood.
Both the children are standouts, perhaps Guillermo Estrella the little Mateo more noticeably because of his youth. It's hard to imagine he is acting.
Gustavo Santaolalla's score is subtle and carefully crafted, but the film seems ponderous, weighed down and elongated by an overactive poetic sensibility. Moral questions float in and out. Some of the spiritual sidebars, in which Uxbal senses communication from the dead, provide additional layers, and while there is frequent dramatic tension, it feels as though no-one wanted to trim it into a more economical and thus perhaps a more emotionally compact work.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
Review by Louise Keller:
A towering performance from Javier Bardem is the leading light in this poetic tragedy from director Alejandro González Iñárritu in which a man finds redemption in the quagmire of his life. The film itself is certainly not easy to watch. The passionate reality that Iñárritu depicts is so dense and often ugly, that it is easy to be repulsed by the images and implications of much of the story that often drags. Some of the plotlines are overly political and the film's length will deter some. But like a sheet of breaking glass, this is a film with a shattering effect. And like the misspelling of the film's title, not everything is as it sounds - or looks.
Such is the life of the troubled protagonist Uxbal whose world in the dark underbelly of Barcelona is chaotic. Surviving just isn't enough any more: there is now a desperate urgency to repay his debts. ('The dead suffer if they leave debts behind.') By connecting the inner and outer lives of Uxbal, Iñárritu has created an intense film that sucks us in and drains us of energy. It's dark and disturbing as it raises tough questions about illegal migrants, living on the wrong side of the law and the bonds of family with its implications of legacy.
The backstreets of Barcelona are filled with darkness and the storyline that weave an ugly tale around Uxbal's existence is unrelenting. The key is our connection with Uxbal, a man who knows he is going to die and sets about to sort out his affairs. He is surrounded by people with problems as he faces his responsibility as a loving father, disillusioned husband and street-smart survivor who takes money for doing things he would prefer not to do.
Maricel Álvarez is sensational as Marambra, Uxbal's bi-polar wife and the two young children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) are remarkable as they are tugged from one parent to the other. Diaryatou Daff is perhaps the biggest surprise as Ige, the illegal immigrant from Senegal whose importance in the story creeps up on us unexpectedly. Like us, she responds to the fact that he is a man with a conscience and a heart.
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CAST: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernández, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff
PRODUCER: Fernando Bovaira, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jon Kilik
DIRECTOR: Alejandro González Iñárritu
SCRIPT: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo, Nicolás Giacobone
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto
EDITOR: Stephen Mirrione
MUSIC: Gustavo Santaolalla
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Brigitte Broch
RUNNING TIME: 147 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 24, 2011