If Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s implicit ambition has been to grapple in a highly creative way with the woes and weight of the world, but through the prism of a deeply personal story, Biutiful may be his greatest achievement yet. He may have painted an early masterpiece with the commanding Amores Perros, but has slipped and slid by degrees with 21 Grams and the ambitious but over-reaching Babel. With Biutiful, he finds his sure footing again, this time with a more intensely personal and linear tale of Uxbal (Javier Bardem, in a truly Oscar-worthy turn), a tough but ailing man of the Barcelona streets who struggles to raise his family and finds strength through his children.
It’s hard to imagine this film being nearly as affecting without Bardem in the haggard semi-anti-hero role. Bardem can seem to do no wrong—even in a puff piece like Eat Pray Love—but is more stunning than usual here, and in keeping with the narrative flow of the film, he necessarily centers and destabilizes the story. He exerts a cool, volatile intensity as Uxbal, the eye of various storms with various international tendrils, between a factory of Chinese immigrant workers, African street sellers, and a bipolar wife (Maricel Álvarez). His own advancing mortality slithers in between the cracks of Iñárritu’s script, through dreams, doctors’ pronouncements, and cross-generational encounters with his own dead father. But the film somehow faces both death and dreams, all the while anchoring itself in a surprising, positive light amid the ruins.
In a fruitful ongoing relationship, the ever-creative and cliché-dodging composer Gustavo Santaolalla supplies another artful score, alternately atmospheric and experimental. Just as the film’s sound design includes some disarming scenes in which the sound of humans rubbing each other scrapes a microphone—as if suddenly transposing us into a documentary setting—Santaolalla punctuates one scene of our protagonist’s disorientation with a sound of a warbling guitar, like a wrinkled magnetic tape/mental state.
Such conspicuous artistic touches are used more sparingly and more movingly than in other Iñárritu films, all conspiring to bring us deeply into the plight and hope of the central character. With Biutiful, he has marshaled his art into a profoundly human tale, with Bardem’s awe-inspiring expressive powers pushing the film higher, and deeper.