Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful, the Mexican director's first project after his much-publicized breakup with former screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga after their Oscar-nominated Babel, is one large dose of sorrow.
That's good news (in some sense) for fans who enjoyed Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. They'll find that Biutiful delivers more of the same: tragedy, grief and a story about the hold of the dead upon the living. Though less caught up in the time-twisting narratives of those previous films, Biutiful offers mysterious fragments of information that don't entirely make sense until the film's ending.
The director-writing team squabbled over the writing credits to Babel, leading to Arriaga being shut out from attending the first screening at Cannes in 2006. The film, starring Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, went on to earn seven Oscar nominations. But eventually it won just one, for its musical score by Gustavo Santaolalla, who returns here.
The new film, shot in Barcelona, is the first under a new production company, Cha Cha Cha, representing three Spanish-language heavyweights - Inarritu, along with fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuaron ( Children of Men) and Spain's Guillermo del Toro ( Pan's Labyrinth). While reaction to the film seemed divided after Monday's press screening, there was a general feeling that Bardem has leapt to the fore as the leading candidate for best-actor prize.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a middleman between Chinese importers who bring in knock-off DVDs and fake designer purses to Spain and African street sellers who hawk the merchandise. Uxbal must make sure the Africans are safe from the law, which means regular, hefty payments to a cop. Almost scene by scene, Uxbal's troubles increase - a diagnosis of prostate cancer, trying to care for his young son and daughter, dealing with his bipolar, promiscuous former wife, and his involvement in a shady scheme to import illegal Chinese immigrants. Though the film steers clear of the city's famous architecture, the street scenes - including a police raid - are kinetic.
Because this is an Inarritu film, there's a thread about our relationship to the dead, including the disposal of Uxbal's long-dead father's corpse, when he decides to sell the crypt and have the body cremated. And one of his means of making money is to visit funeral homes, where he offers the bereaved readings of their dead relatives' last thoughts.
Ultimately, Inarritu's habit of melodramatic piling-on risks becomes more wearing than moving, but Bardem, the first Spanish actor to be nominated for an Academy Award (for Before Night Falls) or to win one (for No Country for Old Men), is compellingly believable, as always, as father, street hustler and frustrated husband. Whether playing evil, as in No Country for Old Men, or almost saintly in his suffering, as he is here (and in The Sea Inside), Bardem crackles with an irrepressible energy that might be called life force. Even the combined forces of fate and a doom-laden script can't wipe that out.