Biutiful (2010) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A dying man struggling in his seedy world

Sometimes the movie which is not the director’s best film has one of best performances in the actor’s career. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Biutiful” is not as successful as planned: a thin premise is extended a little too much, and I lost my patience at some points while watching it. However, whether you will be satisfied with the movie or not, we can agree that, after the end credit rolls, we will not forget its hero played by Javier Bardem, who shoulders the heavy story on his back while trudging along the streets of Barcelona.

Bardem plays Uxbal, a tired man whose daily life is filled with lots of things to take care of. Without his bipolar ex-wife Marambra(Maricel Álvarez), he raises alone his children, Ana(Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo(Guillermo Estrella), in his shabby apartment. Sometimes he loses his patience with the unruly behavior of his children, but he deeply loves them, and so do his children, who have accepted their dad’s hard situation for a long time.

Uxbal is a good man, but his job is not decent. He deals with the Chinese guys who exploit their fellow illegal immigrants in their small sweatshop where they make knockoff purses and handbags, which are sold by the Senegalese street sellers who do not sell these cheap products only. Though he does not like what he does, he needs the money to support his children, so he does whatever he has to do while trying to believe he is doing a good work.

 Uxbal’s main job is making the underground business going as smooth as possible. There are always problems, and he is always busy with taking care of them as a middlman. He gives bribery to a cop for protecting the business from the police raid. He talks with some of illegal immigrants for warning them not to cross the lines. Lately, his Chinese partners decide to lend out their illegal immigrants to some construction site for making more money, and it is Uxbal’s job to make a nice deal with the foreman. He is weary, but he keeps being nice to the people he basically exploits. The weather is getting cold, and he gets the heater for the stuffy basement where Chinese illegal immigrants sleep together, though he buys a cheap one.

He also has the gift to see and communicate with the souls of the recently diseased if the bodies are not moved yet. We see him visiting one funeral at night. I don’t know whether he can really see the dead people or not, but, as least in his view, he helps them leave the world of living comfortably and deliver their last words to the surviving families. When a horrible tragedy happens late in the story, he can feel the presence of the dead people at the site, and that breaks his heart with guilt because he is responsible for that tragedy.

And his life becomes drearier now with another burden on his shoulder. His urine comes out with blood, and, early in the movie, he is diagnosed as a cancer patient in the terminal stage. The fact that he has only few months left does not change his life much. He still has to work for supporting his children, while hiding that fact from others around him except his mother, to whom he can quietly let out the feelings inside him, including his worry and fear for his children’s future.

Javier Bardem, who was unforgettable as a chilling psychopathic killer with weird haircut in “No Country for Old Men”(2007), won Cannes Best Actor award in last year and got the Oscar nomination for Best Actor early in this year for his restrained but deeply sincere performance in this movie. With the gloomy face telling us a lot about his complex character, Bardem effortlessly grabs our attention throughout the film while embodying Uxbal’s pain and sorrow. Even when the movie meanders from time to time, his performance does not lose our attention, and it diligently carries the movie to the inevitable somber ending waiting for Uxbal.

 “Biutiful” is the first work written by Alejandro González Iñárritu himself. Unlike his three previous movies written by Guillermo Arriaga, the movie sticks to one character instead of going back and forth between multiple plots and characters. At first, it seems to be lack of direction, but the movie slowly builds the story around Bardem, and the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto captures some beautiful moments on the screen while realistically presenting the seedy sides of Uxbal’s daily life. The supporting actors surrounding Bardem hold their respective places well, and Maricel Álvarez is especially notable as Uxbal’s troublesome ex-wife Marambra. There is still some affection between Uxbal and Marambra, and it may be possible that they can be happy together with their children again, but her uncontrollable nature is always a wedge between them.

The movie has noticeable flaws in the story. At times, it struggles hard while trying not to show that it struggles hard in its restrained approach. Its running time, more than 140 minutes, is a little too long; it might be boring for some audiences because there is not much change in Uxbal’s life or in him even when he has few days left. There are surely lots of things to show and tell to us, but the movie is not coherent as a whole. As shown in its ending, the movie indeed has the sincerity from Iñárritu, but it is less powerful than Iñárritu’s stronger films like “Babel”(2006) or “Amores perros”(2000). In my personal opinion, a recent South Korean movie “The Journal of Musan”(2010), a similar movie about a lonely man struggling at the bottom of the society day by day, is more powerful and suspenseful for the his decency is more fragile than Uxbal’s.

Though it requires some patience, “Biutiful”, which will be soon released in South Korean theaters in this month, is still worthwhile to watch. This is a sad, grim drama about a man who tries to go on while knowing that he is losing with little time left for him – and Bardem’s moving performance will linger on your mind like a small candle with its light slowly dying in the bottom of the darkness. He is worried, but he cannot afford to worry about himself even at the end.

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