Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Cheikh Ndiaye
In spite of its title, Biutiful is not a feel-good happy film but the opposite, and as with most of Alejandro Gonzalez pictures, sets out to be feel-bad cinema from the moment it starts until the credits roll.
It follows the story of Uxbal, a middle aged father struggling to keep his two children happy amongst an ever growing burden of problems, from running an illegal sweatshop to getting food on the table - his estranged wife is a bipolar alcoholic, he’s struggling to make ends meet and then he is diagnosed with a terminal illness. It all seems a bit much for one man’s life and perhaps a little far-fetched.
Set in the dark, bleak underbelly of Barcelona, away from the glitzy tourist attractions, it’s painted as a city in social and economic despair, heavily populated with lonely, desperate people - a brave move from a Mexican born director. Like his past films, Babel and 21 Grams, cultural identity is central to the plot as he explores the lifestyles of different cultures, and the hierarchies which are created when they live together. As well as the Spanish we are shown into the lives of the Chinese immigrants and also the street selling Africans. At times this is hard to follow, and perhaps this multi-narrative structure was a bit too ambitious, a downfall of the film is it’s unnecessarily long running time of nearly two and a half hours. The introduction of Uxbal’s sixth sense, his gift of speaking to the dead, introduces a supernatural element which works well with the eerie but naturalistic cinematography.
The film is wholly centred on Uxbal, an Oscar nominated performance from Javier Bardem, who plays the role with such heart-wrenching naturalism. He carries Uxbal’s sorrow in his weathered face and it’s a striking but welcome contrast to the Spanish heartthrob we saw in films like Vicky Christina Barcelona. While on paper he isn’t a character you would sympathise with – exploiting the poor and bereaved, he is also shown as a caring, loving man whose primary aim is to maintain and support his broken family. The film captures moments of tenderness through his relationship with his children, which lend the title its name and make it, in the end a satisfying if not painfully sad watch.
Words by Megan Dobson
Image courtesy of Getty Images