In Biutiful, Iñárritu crafts a story that plays out on the fringes of society, where people scrabble to make it from day to day, doing the things we take for granted. Powerful and moving, it shows us this world through the lens of one man trying remain in control and hold everything together.
Uxbal (Javier Bardem) acts as a go-between, taking care of the messy details for some rarely-seen businessman named Mendoza in Barcelona. In particular, he handles matters between Hai (Cheng Tai Shen), a shady Chinese entrepreneur who forces his pool of illegal immigrants first to make shoddy knock-off merchandise and later to work in construction, Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), an African immigrant who heads up a crew selling the knock-offs and illegal narcotics, and Zanc (Rubén Ochandiano), a police officer paid to look the other way. It’s not exactly the easiest position to be in, and with his brother and partner Tito (Eduard Fernández) busy running a strip club it’s left to Uxbal to hold everything together and stay in control.
In his personal life, Uxbal has custody of his children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), whose mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), left in no position to care for them by her substance abuse and unmedicated bipolar disorder. It’s clear he does love and care about her, but again he’s forced to stay in control and hold everything together, and that means keeping her at arm’s length.
Unfortunately, entropy always wins, as usual. Marambra wants to get back into her kids’ lives, Ekweme and his gang are peddling their wares too close to the nicer areas of town, Zanc can’t keep the heat off forever, and the Chinese are making demands of their own. Oh, and Uxbal has been diagnosed with a prostate cancer that has already metastasized to his bones and liver, giving him a few months to live.
We’re left to watch Uxbal slowly let everything slip away from his once-firm grasp, whether he wants to let it or not. All the strength in the world can’t stop what is to come, and fighting the inevitable will only make it harder. Uxbal must learn to accept and let go, so he can provide as best he can for the future of his family.
As we watch, we also look in on Ekweme’s family, with his wife Ige (Diaryatou Daff) and infant son Samuel (George Chibuikwem Chukwuma), and Hai’s relationship with his business partner and lover, Liwei (Luo Jin), as well as the Chinese immigrant, Li (Lang Sofia Lin), who cares for Uxbal’s children. Through them we see how life plays out on the margins most of us in the audience will never experience.
Iñárritu renders all of this carefully and compassionately. It’s not surprising that his latest project again deals with death, after the “death trilogy” of Amores perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, although a change of topic might have been nice. He also brings a slice of magical realism, with Uxbal’s ability to communicate with the recently departed. It would be easy for this device to be overdone, but Iñárritu shows a judicious hand in using it.
For his part, Bardem expertly crafts Uxbal’s character; it’s no surprise at all that he’s up for an Academy Award for this role, despite its presence in a non-English role. As the action moves forward, Bardem slowly peels back Uxbal’s hard outer shell to expose a vulnerable persona that is relieved to be rid of its weight for once. It’s not an easy journey to watch, but it’s a rewarding one.
Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: fail.