Biutiful is a beautiful film. Beutifully aching, beautifully bleak and beautifully crafted by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, bringing his signature styles as seen in 21 Grams and Babel, weaving a rich tapestry of a father's love for his children into a powerful narrative of survival and that painful succession, of responsibility and guilt careening toward the inevitable finale with the rush against time before one succumbs to the illness that fate had dealt.
In essence this is almost a one man show and Javier Bardem is in absolutely fine form as Uxbal, a man stricken with cancer and knows his time is up. But that only compounds his problems as he has two young children to take care and fend for, given that his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), who suffers from bipolar disorder and is cheating behind his back with his brother, is none quite fit to raise the two kids on her own. Without regular work - moonlighting as a medium of sorts and mostly earning his keeps from the underworld through trade involving illegal workers, he treads the fine line of survival in mixing with the black hats as well as those on the side of the law who prefer to have their palms greased.
If you have followed Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's filmography and career thus far with four features including this one under his belt, you'd come to appreciate his preference in taking time to tell a story, and weaving in no less than three distinct narrative threads here that converge somewhat toward the end, dealing with the lives of a down and out, dysfunctional Spanish family, that of a Chinese businessman and his gay lover whose business acumen is quite suspect, and of a Senegalese family with close ties to Uxbal, whose breadwinner fail to heed Uxbal's advice to stay off the drug trade. These three pronged stories provide for an exploration of a spectrum of emotions
Besides Bardem's excellent performance which snagged him the Palme d'Or for Best Actor in Cannes last year, both Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella also owned the film as the children of Uxbal, being very natural in front of the camera to endear their characters to the audience, making it easily understandable why a father would fight tooth and nail and meticulously plan for the day that he would no longer be around, that there are good people around to assist in raising his kids, that there would be some money available to be expensed for livelihood.
While the film sprawls in its narrative, it's the little touches that hammer home the poignancy and emotions. I could have sworn that it was a sound gaffe when father and daughter embrace in a moment of extreme affection and the sound of hearts pounding came through because the wireless mikes underneath their garments come into close contact with their bodies, but letting it remain in the film allowed for that very deeply felt feelings to ring right through, allowing us to hear those heart beats that made it all seem so keenly felt, and moving.
Then there are the opening scenes involving two hands and a ring, and one involving Uxbal and a mysterious man in a snow filled landscape talking over a dead owl, and these only made sense to those patient and brings the entire film full circle. Even the scene with Uxbal in a room of coffins also brought home the point of melancholy of the dearly departed, which dealt with spirituality in a deft fashion. It is precisely these moments that Inarritu's film becomes the gem that it is, making you feel for each and every one of the characters involved and the options available and chosen, that you clamour for reprieve even for just a little while, such as the making do and contentment around the dinner table with what little they have.
Despite its grim and bleak outlook, the sensitive treatment by the filmmakers and cast makes Biutiful an engrossing, wicked even, view in witnessing a man's spiral into despair, and the touching moments that come when the inevitable is just at the horizon. Highly recommended!