Alejandro González Iñárritu makes viscerally powerful films which take us through the depiction of physical and mental pain to the suggestion of spiritual release. Biutiful follows this journey, though unlike the Mexican director’s earlier films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) it does not intercut frenetically between different plotlines (though his genius for the sudden cut is at work here - it is not a surprise to learn it took 14 months to edit this work). Everything here is seen through the story of Uxbal (played by Javier Bardem), who is trying to set his affairs in order in his last few months on earth. Set in the non-tourist board Barcelona, Biutiful checks in on a long list of social issues: human trafficking, illegal immigrants, contraband goods, police corruption, prostitution, drugs, mental illness, child abuse and, everywhere, desperate grinding poverty.
Striding doggedly through this unremitting bleakness is Uxbal, a flawed but fundamentally decent figure: he does his best to look out for immigrant workers, and as a (genuine) medium brings some comfort to the bereaved. We see him take money for these services (he is too much of a mixture for us to view him sentimentally), but it is clear from his behaviour that he is guided by more than mercenary motives. Above all Uxbal tries to do his best for his children, and to assure some kind of stable life for them when he is gone. A dreadful event in the centre of the film lays a terrible weight of guilt on him just as he is worn to almost nothing by his material worries and medical condition.
Biutiful is to some degree a portrait of modern Barcelona, or rather its underbelly, which could be that of any large Western city. Hand-held camera techniques take us into the tenements , basements and small shops of the Raval until we can almost smell the damp and feel the cold. There is a breathtaking setpiece as the African merchants are chased down the Ramblas by the police, while the development of an old cemetery, and the construction site in Badalona illustrate the ongoing concrete sprawl. Sometimes the camera swoops up to the heavens, with Gustavo Santaolalla’s characteristically ethereal score suggesting the spiritual dimension to which Uxbal has some access. Somehow I found myself on this occasion resisting the film’s pull to the spiritual: perhaps this was because by now with this director’s work you see the themes of penitence and redemption coming; or perhaps because it just seemed unnecessary. The simple fact of Uxbal’s resilient humanity is enough, whatever lies beyond. But the depiction of the life of the underclass of a big city, and the relationships between the main characters, were deeply affecting. Biutiful is in pretty much every way a complete contrast to Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which also as it happens stars Javier Bardem, now surely established as one of the greatest screen presences of film today.