BIUTIFUL is a somber, lyrical, joyous, and troubling tone poem of a film. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has made a haunting consideration of the mysteries of the universe. The protagonist, Uxbal, is a dying man raging against the dying of his light. After a life spent living by his wits from day to day, a diagnosis of terminal cancer has forced him to tie up all the messy loose end in a few months. Javier Bardems subtle, passionate performance is nothing less than perfection, combining his characters contradictions with grace and clarity.
Using the seedier part of Barcelona as a backdrop, Inarritu finds a vibrant, if not necessarily welcoming, world, though one that Uxbal, with responsibilities weighing on him, is unwilling to leave. He finds a tenuous living there, working as a middle man finding jobs for undocumented aliens from China and Africa, and as a medium helping disconsolate spirits along to the next life. In both cases, exploiting those he also helps for money, but with a sincere respect for the exploited, and a healthy contempt for those exploiting both them and him. Hes not a bad man in a milieu where the dividing line between the law and the criminal is a uniform, not corruption. Uxbal is devoted to his two children whom he is raising alone, but he is not blessed with patience; he is kind to his emotional wreck of an ex-wife, Maramba (blazingly vulnerable Maricel Alvarez), but is short-tempered with her bi-polarity. The film tracks his last, desperate days with a vertiginous energy as bustles through a series of catastrophes in which he hurts those closest to him by trying to be kind, and meets the father who died before he was born.
This is not a film that depicts pretty things, but it is ravishingly lovely. Reality and the supernatural blend all but subliminally, as Uxbals reflection, perhaps a metaphor for his soul, slowly stops echoing Uxbals movements without him noticing. Its significant that after a night of unwilling debauchery is when he first becomes conscious that the shadow he casts is only tangentially related to what he is doing. The images throughout are potent. A childs spirit sitting quietly by its body in church basement, other bodies, unloved and unmourned washing up on a seashore, a shadow passing by a frosted glass window bringing a reassurance. Inarritu uses his trademark quick cuts in sequences that are small masterpieces of storytelling and visceral impact, but its in letting the camera linger over Bardems face that he makes his best move. Bardem can convey Uxbals weariness in body and mind, the way he processes what is happening around him, with the most small and transient recasting of his features. When he finally allows Uxbals emotions to explode, giving in at last to give in to hope or grief or pain, it is a natural extension of what he has already done. The despairing tenderness, the stubborn refusal to accept swhis mortality, and the final, tearful confession to his mentor and fellow medium, Bea (Ana Wagener), a woman of angelic calm and sublime peace, all have a resonant immediacy.
What is real, what is a projection of Uxbals fevered mind in this metaphysical thriller, are never quite resolved, though the film itself resolves at last into the silence of the same snowy wood with which it began. Questions are not so much answered, as rendered superfluous in the quiet exhilaration of finally letting go.