The Barcelona of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful could be Spain's equivalent to the 1970s New York of Sidney Lumet or Martin Scorsese. Biutiful presents a metropolis of grubby, vibrant neighborhoods with colorful characters on the make, where one person's survival frequently comes at another's expense. Iñárritu goes beyond simply conveying the sights and sounds of the Spanish city's mean streets — you can practically feel the grit under your fingertips and inhale the aromas.
Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a conscientious hustler who keeps Barcelona's underground, off-the-books economy thriving. In a way, he provides an outplacement service for illegal immigrants, securing construction jobs for Chinese newcomers and enlisting Senegalese to hawk counterfeit merchandise on street corners. Uxbal declares, "I'm not exploiting them, I'm helping them find work!" but he can't sustain his self-perception as a decent man in a corrupt system.
And that's just one of Uxbal's personal crises that Iñárritu traces through Biutiful. Where the Mexican director's previous films such as 21 Grams and Babel juggled multiple protagonists, settings and time lines, here Iñárritu tracks the competing pressures brought to bear on one complex antihero. Even at nearly two and a half hours, Biutiful can't adequately explore all the ideas it raises. But Bardem's central performance and Iñárritu's expansive, polyglot vision take a fresh approach to the kind of atonement story most movies botch.
Early in the film, health problems force Uxbal to consider the future of his kids as well as the immigrants who rely on him. He has custody of his two children (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) and a difficult relationship with their mother Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), a bipolar masseuse who longs to reconcile with her estranged family. When Uxbal and Marambra sit around the dining room table, eating ice cream with the kids and talking about how they met, they look like the picture of a playfully happy family. But Uxbal can't trust Marambra due to her mood swings that lead to abusive and reckless behavior. Álvarez gives a moving performance as a loving, sensitive woman who can't keep her destructive impulses in check.
Uxbal also contemplates the life of the father he never knew when a cemetery sale requires his deceased dad's remains be moved. Iñárritu brings surprisingly many of the story lines together, particularly in the achingly lovely final scenes. But as if all that weren't enough, Uxbal even occasionally experiences visions of dead people, a thin, sporadically mentioned point with no real bearing on the film.
The Oscar-winning Bardem creates a character who amounts to more than the sum of his hardships. Uxbal endures considerable anguish, from urinating blood to accidentally causing the deaths of friends, but Bardem conveys a man whose concern for his dependents never flags. The tender expression in his eyes and gentle tone of voice reveal Uxbal's empathy for his children, for young immigrant mothers and for Marambra on her good days.
While dramatizing the plight of Third World illegals in a major city of the developed world, Biutiful also provides a character study of a figure worthy of Dostoevsky. Where many Hollywood dramas make a cliché out of the bid for redemption, Uxbal's suffering and self-knowledge lead him to transcend his squalid Barcelona surroundings. Despite its downbeat material, Biutiful ends on a note that's hopeful, reassuring and beautiful in an unsentimental fashion.