Uxbal is a tortured soul; torn between his family, his work and his death. He alternately exploits and protects various groups of migrant workers in Barcelona who he makes a living off of. We also see glimpses of another life he leads; again is he exploiting grieving families or helping them by speaking to their recently departed loved ones? He makes a connection to the dead he seems to find hard to make in his own life. Biutiful is a startling film full of light and dark.
Javier Bardem is quite frankly mesmerising in the role of Uxbal. “A sun surrounded by satellite planets” is how writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu describes Uxbal and he wrote the part with Javier in mind for the whole film; his instincts were right. This role fits Bardem like a glove, he is in almost every scene and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Once Uxbal learns of his own impending death he has to decide how to live out the time given to him.
Uxbal tries to take care of his kids as his ex-wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez – a talented theatre actor from Argentina in her first screen role) suffers from bipolar disorder, a fact his brother Tito takes advantage of at every opportunity. Inarittu has again made a brilliant choice of actor, Maricel Alvarez is vulnerable and frightening, manic and heartbreaking; another tortured soul for Uxbal to handle.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu Director wanted to give us a linear story of one man – as opposed to the multiple narratives of Babel – but he still manages to give us others’ stories too. Biutiful touches on the lives of the various migrants (who Inarittu describes as an “eclectic and vibrant community that is reshaping the world”) and their other exploiters delving more deeply into some. Hai (Cheng Tai Shen) is married and runs a factory full of illegal Chinese workers but he leads a double life with Liwei (Luo Jin) his business partner which inevitably leads to ruin.
The list of poignant moments is never-ending; Uxbal meeting his dead father who he never knew in life, the payment for his services as a conduit, Marambra’s sun lamp of happiness.
Uxbal’s children Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) are well written parts and the actors are amazing. The part of Ana was only cast 2 weeks before shooting when Inarittu happened upon her in a school playground; her performance is strong and natural. Inarittu’s penchant for unknowns and real people led him to cast Diaryatou Daff for the role of Ige, a migrant worker’s wife who needs Uxbal’s support and in turn supports him. Diaryatou is herself a migrant who was working in a hair salon at the time; her first role but surely not her last, she is honest and powerful.
With amazing cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto) showing a Barcelona most people are not familiar with, we see its seedier side with famous landmarks looming over the street scenes. The use of sounds – amplified heartbeats and muffled voices adds up to a deliberately otherworldly mix.
“Our existence , short-lived as the flicker of a star, only reveals to us its ineffable brevity once we are close to death”, for what is life made up of if not our relationships with others and how they remember us – and how will Uxbal be remembered? No one who sees this film will be in any doubt this is Inarittu’s finest film yet, it is just astonishing. There are Oscars in its future no doubt and ah it’s a cliché but it is a beautiful film.