Here in America, we aren’t treated to many foreign films. Unless you venture out to an art house theater, you’re not likely to find one, but unfortunately, art house theaters are few and far between, usually resting in large cities. I saw more movies than I could count last year, yet only one, I Am Love, was non-English speaking. In my review for that movie, I hypothesized that people would love it simply because it is foreign, something lots of smug filmgoers who reject anything Hollywood has to offer seem to do. I personally found the movie a sluggish bore, but it only took one more foreign film for me to join the smugness. Hailing from Mexico, Biutiful is one of the most intellectually provocative, interesting and, yes, beautiful movies to be released in quite some time.
While not as simple as this sentence suggests, Biutiful is, at its core, a character study of a man named Uxbal (Javier Bardem) who has just found out he is dying from cancer and only has a few more months to live. He is struggling with the idea of mortality, much like Michael Douglas in Solitary Man. However, he, unlike Douglas, knows what happens after you die. He has a special ability to see and communicate with the dead and knows for a fact that the afterlife exists. Because of this, he isn’t afraid to die. Rather he’s afraid of leaving his two children behind without him. Their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) is trampy and bipolar and isn’t there for them when they need her. His brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández) is also unreliable and is actually sleeping with Marambra behind his back. With nobody he trusts, he fears what will become of his children.
That’s the beauty in Biutiful. It’s a character study about Uxbal, but his thoughts are not about him. They are of others. Although he can be a bit ill-tempered in certain situations, sometimes even towards his kids, he is generally a kind man, or at least he thinks he is. What he does is find people jobs, mostly illegal ones where they are stuck on the streets peddling pirated DVD’s and cheaply made handbags, but then he takes a cut of their money. He thinks he is helping those people when he is actually exploiting them. Much like his reflection in mirrors, what's looking back at him isn't necessarily what he sees.
Still, Uxbal tries to make things right before he dies, not only with his family, but also with those around him. He’s a man who has done some bad things, but you never consider him a bad man. Rather than hate him, you feel sorry for him. Even his kind deeds don’t produce the best results and as the movie progresses, he faces so many problems that his impending death is the least of them. Bardem creates a sympathetic character out of Uxbal and his performance is grand. The bottom line: he deserves that Oscar nomination.
Despite the engrossing, challenging material, Biutiful is too long. Running at nearly two and a half hours, it wears out its welcome by the end thanks to some unnecessary subplots, including one about two gay Chinese men that serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever to the overall story.
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, directing his first Spanish language film since 2000’s Amores Perros, brings a keen eye to Biutiful. It’s beautifully shot with a beginning and ending set in a peaceful winter landscape that brings its themes full circle. Biutiful and the characters in it are many things: dark, yet hopeful; hateful, yet loving; self indulgent, yet caring; cruel, yet regretful. It’s a movie that takes multiple viewings to fully wrap your head around and its thematic complexity makes it an absolute must see.
Biutiful receives 4.5/5