Eschewing the multi-character and layered storylines of his previous films and working for the first time without screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, director Alejandro González Iñárritu goes linear in Biutiful. The film focuses on one complex man named Uxbal, magnificently played by Javier Bardem, who learns he is dying and has only two months to sort out his life for the sake of his family. Shot in Spanish in the underbelly of Barcelona, this Cannes Festival competition entry may be too dark and depressing for mainstream audiences, but it is clearly the heartfelt and very personal achievement of a master filmmaker with a potentially award winning performance from its star. The film will be distributed internationally by Focus International but is still seeking domestic release. Strong critical support will be needed but a savvy company could ride on the wings of Bardem's name and turn this cinematic gem into a modest arthouse success, although European and Latin American audiences are likely to respond in even greater numbers.
The director, whose past successes include Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Perros focuses his screenplay (co-written with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone) on Uxbal (Bardem), a character Iñárritu describes as a "devoted father, tormented lover, mystified son, underground businessman, ghost seeker, spiritual sensitive, consumer goods pirate, guilty conscience and urban survivor." In other words he is a man of many talents and contradictions who finds himself up to his eyeballs in illegal doings with shady partners. He pirates movies, runs a sweat shop with Chinese migrant workers and even claims to the bereaved that he can communicate with their deceased loved ones--for a buck of course. On the other side of things, he is a loving father to his two kids, and also has to deal with a separation from those kids' wild partying mother Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), who is playing around with Uxbal's no-good brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández).
Blood in his urine sends him to a doctor who diagnoses a prostate cancer that has spread to his liver and bones giving him only two months to live. Despite his questionable (at best) endeavors and bad judgments he is essentially a good man caught up in circumstances beyond his control.
More than anything this is about a man who finds he is racing against time, trying to prepare his kids (without telling them) for a life without their beloved dad. Apart from hiring Ige (Diaryatou Daff), a homeless, Sengalese, mother with an infant, to babysit his kids, he has nowhere else to turn in order to set his life in order and make sure his family will be okay.
Bardem never goes overboard with this contradictory character, but the overriding impression we get is of a good father and decent human being who has made some bad choices trying to provide for his family. Bardem is extraordinary and enormously touching in a heartbreaking and unforgettable portrayal. Among the supporting cast, Álvarez is on fire as a woman hopelessly incapable of being a real mother and wife. Daff is also quite effective in her scenes.
As on all his films, Iñárritu has surrounded himself with top production talent, including Rodrigo Prieto's stunning cinematography, Gustavo Santaolalla's haunting music and Stephen Mirrione's skillful editing.
Biutiful, which gets its name from a child's misspelling, is in itself a beautiful, mesmerizing film—and Iñárritu‘s masterpiece.
Distributor: Focus Features International
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Eduard Fernández, Diaryatou Daff and Taisheng Cheng
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Screenwriters: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone
Producers: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Jon Kilik, Guillermo del Toro and Fernando Bovarira
Genre: Drama; Spanish-language, subtitled
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use.
Release date: January 28 ltd.