The trailer for Alejandro Iñárritu’s fourth film doesn’t give much away. Opening with a machine-gun montage of images set to a keening note of tension, it seems to promise a frenetic, event-driven narrative, heady with passion and with threat. There’s just three lines of dialogue, hinting at the protagonist’s limited lifespan, and then a second montage, shifting the tone to melancholy with lonely landscapes and scenes of grief. It’s a slightly jarring watch, a build up that turns not to release but to a lengthened, protracted decay.
As trailers go, it’s uncharacteristically honest. Biutiful is a film about decay, about the decline of both its main character and the society around him. Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a man diagnosed with prostate cancer and given two months to live. Even before this knowledge, though, he was living on the fringes of life, acting as a broker between illegal immigrants subsisting in squalor and those seeking to exploit their labour for profit. In addition, Uxbal can commune with the recently-dead, his ‘gift’ a bridge between the world he’s in and the one he’s soon to join.
This is not an easy film, nor a conventional one. In the hands of another director the supernatural conceit would likely have taken over, the familiar Sixth Sense narrative of a man struggling to cope with a dubious ability suffocating any other plot strands with lazy horror and predictable story arcs. Not here. It’s some way into the film before Uxbal’s skill is introduced, and it’s never dwelled upon, lamented nor questioned. This is simply something he can do – presented to us through disquieting shots of bodies pressed into the corners of ceilings or shadows haunting the edges of the frame – and never the thing that defines him.
It’s the cancer that does that. We see Uxbal go through the standard cycle, from denial to anger to final, grim acceptance, attempting to get his life in order before it falls apart. But far from a tale of self-pity, Biutiful is about carrying on in spite of the circumstances, making plans and helping others in whatever way possible. Only twice does Uxbal discuss his cancer openly, first with a fellow medium and then with a stranger, a girl he meets in a club. But he wears the weight of it upon his face, his features taut with resignation and regret.
Bardem does more than just play this character: he inhabits him, giving an immaculate, sustained performance as a man grinding down as he sees his own end, confronting his own mortality as he’s seen that of so many around him. As with Benicio Del Toro’s tortured patriarch in Iñárritu’s 2003 film 21 Grams, Uxbal’s home life is difficult, his estranged wife disintegrating under bi-polar disorder and her own promiscuous impulses and their young son becoming increasingly wayward (scenes of familial discord, particularly set within a mealtime context, will be familiar to fans of Iñárritu’s previous work).
These personal traumas are written against a wider backdrop of contemporary Barcelona, a city ordinarily drenched in golden hues of Catalonian sun and lazy recourse to Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia. And sure, those shots are here, fleetingly. For the main though Iñárritu shoots it as a cluttered sprawl, industrial chimneys pockmarking streets that run with perennial rain, its inhabitants either desperate or indifferent.
This is a Barcelona of corrupt police and human traffickers, of deportations and deprivation. Women stitch together counterfeit goods in airless sweatshops for little reward, their husbands working jobs in construction that they aren’t trained how to do. At night they sleep on concrete floors, their lives a constant fog of flu and fear and ultimately tragedy. This is a film comprised of tragic lives, every character broken in a society that lacks in empathy or care.
With some exceptions. Uxbal feels for these people, spending his last days doing what he can, even if his actions are unwittingly damaging. And it’s clear that Iñárritu cares too, ultimately directing our sympathy not at Bardem’s character but at the invisible, marginalised communities that are forced to the fringes. The plight of the Senegalese and Chinese immigrants is drawn with candour and restraint, never falling to sentimentalism but remaining tremendously affecting throughout. In a film not light on miseries it’s theirs that leaves the scar, a moving counterpoint to the increasingly heartless xenophobia of much of our press.
It’s certainly not an easy film. At 138 minutes of near-relentless hopelessness it’s a fair challenge to endure, and there are few lighter scenes to leaven the tone. The performances are tremendous, though, lending a humanity to roles which could easily have become mere archetype (such as Uxbal’s sleazy brother, seemingly bereft of any moral anchor). Maricel Alvarez deserves particular mention for her turn as Uxbal’s wife Marambra, her downward spiral inescapable despite frantic attempts to keep herself together.
And if at times the sheer abundance of personal dilemma – repressed homosexuality! marital infidelity! – threatens to turn the film to soap opera, the beauty of its cinematography steers it back to safety. This is urban decline shot with a documentary maker’s eye for detail, and if nothing else it stands as an essential antidote to the tourist snapshot of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. Whilst Biutiful might not be making it into Spanish holiday brochures anytime soon, it’s certainly more than worthy of our time, and it would be a foolish Oscar panel that overlooks Bardem’s performance come February 27th.