The dark, painful beauty of 'Biutiful'

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is sitting with his young son, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella), at the kitchen table. The boy is coloring and asks his father how to spell beautiful. Uxbal, distracted, spells it; however, Mateo writes "biutiful."

Only a child, ensconced in the safe embrace of his father, would describe that which surrounds him as beautiful. He lives in a small, shabby apartment in a gritty Barcelona neighborhood with his older sister, Ana (Hanas Bouchaib) and Uxbal. His mother, Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), is a part-time masseuse and streetwalker. She's also bipolar and erratic and reluctant to take her meds or much responsibility for her children. Divorced from Uxbal, she lives elsewhere.

There is nothing beautiful about "Biutiful." It's unrelentingly stark, saturated with a dark melancholy. And for many, it might be more pain than they can endure.

Uxbal is a street hustler who spends his days, while his kids are in school, working with his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) hiring out illegal immigrants for sweatshop labor and construction.

In the first scenes of the film, Uxbal is diagnosed as having terminal prostate cancer. When he asks how long, he is told two months. It is a terrifying and awful moment — for him, of course, but in great part because there is no one to care for his children, certainly not Maramba. And clearly not his brother.

For all of his street smarts, for his callous use of others to stay financially afloat, Uxbal is also caring and empathetic for those he knows and loves, most especially Mateo and Ana. He is a man of profound contradictions whose life has suddenly taken on a fierce, fearful urgency.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (also the film's director), in collaboration with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone, wrote the screenplay. And what the writers have created is a modern tragedy, giving Uxbal almost more than he can bear. Photographed by Rodrigo Prieto, each somber frame conveys an unrelenting desolation.

Yet, simultaneously, there is something wonderful and hopeful in the performance of Bardem and in the narrative. Until his last moment, Uxbal refuses to yield. His life is profoundly unfair, his circumstances relentlessly awful. And yet he lives as if he might prevail, though he knows that his reality is, ultimately, without hope.

Inarritu, in all of his films, inevitably pulls back the happy meal patina that is so often the staple of Hollywood and reveals the dark side of the moon. As in "Babel," this world is a multicultural pastiche of people whose lives overlap not out of choice but out of scorching circumstances — in "Biutiful" they are Spanish, Chinese and Senegalese.

If you love movies, and if you welcome the chance to watch consummate, unadorned actors at work — Bardem's performance, deeply unsettling and inspired, garnered him an Oscar nomination — then don't miss this film. But be prepared for an austerity of joy that can feel overwhelming.

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