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Alejandro González Iñárritu simplifies and impresses on the streets of Barcelona

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Javier Bardem lives fast and . . . you know the rest.


Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Opens Feb. 4. 

The first words uttered in Biutiful are also the last: “¿Es real?” Someone asks it about a diamond ring at the beginning; the question is repeated at the end. But “Is it real?” could also be posed about what flits across the screen. All cinema is illusory, but Biutiful flaunts its realism by immersing you in the harsh lives of people who lack privilege. Barcelona, the Catalonian metropolis that, especially after the 1992 Olympics, became the capital of cool, is Biutiful’s setting, but its city of mean streets and squalid flats is as far removed from the urbane glamour of Whit Stillman’s Barcelona and Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Paris, Texas is from Paris, France.

It is a perilous netherworld in which, as one policeman puts it, “It’s dangerous to trust a man who’s hungry.” Everyone here is hungry, not least Uxbal (Javier Bardem), who staves off starvation for himself and two young children by putting undocumented immigrants to work hawking knockoff designer purses and pirated movies. He also pockets fees for exercising an ability to commune with the dead. After he conveys a message from a deceased boy’s spirit to his grieving parents, the mother complains: “You came here to bullshit us.” The grateful father nevertheless hands him a fistful of euros. A scuzzy hustler, Uxbal genuinely believes in the reality of his visions, and Bardem fully inhabits this complicated, tender dreamer and callous con.

Uxbal profits from the desperation of Chinese and African refugees, but he also buys heaters to ease the sleep of foreign sweatshop workers lodged in a chilly, shabby basement. He never knew his own father, an opponent of Franco who was forced into exile in Mexico, and he is determined, without quite knowing how, to be a decent father to his own children. Uxbal raises Ana and Mateo without much help from their lunatic, sporadically absent mother. Clinically diagnosed as bipolar, Marambra (Maricel álvarez) is a perpetual paroxysm of raw, uncontrollable energies. She gives massages and more to strangers and justifies her behavior with an excuse that applies to any of the movie’s characters: “I do what I can to survive.”

For Uxbal, survival is particularly problematic since, early in the movie, he is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and given only months to live. How does a man whose life is as much a shambles as his grungy little apartment face up to the imminence of the end? The prospect of mortality concentrates Biutiful in a way uncharacteristic of director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s other works. In Babel, 21 Grams, and Amores Perros, he was the Mexican Robert Altman, juggling and crosscutting multiple story lines and ultimately forcing them to converge. If the proliferation of plots exercised and advertised his prodigious talents, it sometimes also dissipated them. This time, the focus on one scruffy pícaro’s final troubled months gives the movie power and a certain grandeur. Much of it is shot in extreme closeups, making you attend to the sweat of everyday life. The few images glimpsed of a world beyond the dismal quarters of the working poor—a snowy forest, an owl, the sea—are so stunning they enable you to share Uxbal’s experience of access to sublimity.

Biutiful affirms that some flawed splendor abides even in the most improbable circumstances. Working on a coloring book, 10-year-old Ana asks her father how to spell “beautiful.” Uxbal does not know English, as he does not know the Chinese and Wolof spoken by the migrants with whom he deals. So, relying on his Spanish pronunciation, he spells the word out phonetically, and imperfectly, for his beloved daughter. John Keats declared that beauty is truth. If so, Biutiful is a vision of blemished truth. The most popular tourist destination in Spain, Barcelona never looked so bad, to such memorable effect.

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