Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Starring Javier Bardem, Marciel Álvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Diaryatou Daff and Cheng Tai Shen.
A single father, who struggles with love, fatherhood and his business in the underworld of Barcelona, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He must also deal with his bi-polar wife and a large group of illegal immigrants.
Films about a life of crime always tend to focus on the rise and fall of a young man with big ideas being completely crippled by the baseball bat of corruption. It’s almost like they follow a moral code that says all people who dive into the underworld must drown at the end. After a while, you find yourself asking for a little more forgivingness in these affairs. Or at least let us see a man who genuinely kind, despite his illegal behaviour. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s newest release has given me a new type of crime drama.
Alright, so it’s not a crime drama primarily, but it does deal with a lot of the criminal underworld in Barcelona. Javier Bardem is Uxbal, a single father with two children and a bi-polar ex-(ish) wife, who is also working in various illegal projects. Not only is having Bardem play the lead in this a great idea in its own right, but the characterization is a whole string of fantastic ideas. Uxbal is a charming father figure who just happens to be involved with an underground empire with his brother Tito and a Chinese crime boss called Hai. But he has a good heart.
As well as being one of the most loving fathers I’ve seen outside of the work of Dickens, he is generally nice to those that surround him, despite the shady activities. One part of his empire is an illegal Chinese sweatshop, but he goes out of his way to make sure conditions are at least adequate for the workers. Ok, that’s not exactly a perfect thing to hear, but it compliments his character as a caring person in a world of corruption. Which is why the plot pivot couldn’t be at a better place.
Towards the end of the first act of the film, Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer with a couple of months to live. So begins his redemption and to secure a better future for his children. His bi-polar (sort of) wife is the biggest obstacle to cross. Drinking, smoking and swearing at the kids, the thought of leaving them with her is a frightening one indeed. At times it feels like a pretty extreme episode of Eastenders, but with real actors. Also, he puts himself at risk to make sure the illegal immigrants under his *ahem* ‘employment’ aren’t deported back to their countries, even to the point of paying rent for some of the luckier ones.
The approach of the film feels very similar to the style of a Darren Aronofsky in the way that the camera is allergic to tripods and everything looks grimy. I’m serious. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hired someone to smear the walls with a dead chicken before sneezing over everything. Yes, it really looks like a dump. The lightening helps to make it look more depressing than it really should be, as well. But the optimism and charm from the characters throughout the film provides a good juxtaposition against the filthy background of Barcelona’s underworld.
Biutiful deserved the notice it received at the Academy Awards and it’s a bleeding shame that it lost out on winning anything there. Bardem is fantastic to watch on screen at all times and the narrative swings into so many unexpected shocks that will grip you until your arms go red. It’s a subtle epic that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Will Preston is a student at the University of Portsmouth. He writes for various blogs (including his own website), presents a weekly radio show on PURE FM and makes various short films.
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