Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, the director who brought us Babel and 21 Grams, is known for circular, multi-plot storytelling. But he abandons that style in his latest film, Biutiful. Here, the linear narrative follows the main character, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), as he struggles to get his affairs in order after learning he has inoperable cancer. Bardem’s performance is astounding and has earned him an Oscar nomination, but Biutiful is so unrelentingly bleak that it’s painful to watch in its 148-minute entirety.
Set in modern-day Barcelona, far from the cruise-line ports, Biutiful lets viewers into a world where the inhabitants live on the edge of poverty, their underground economy based on the work of illegal laborers from China and middlemen from Senegal. Uxbal buys off a corrupt cop to look the other way at the illegal sales of knock-off designer purses. He pays his rent and puts food on the table for his two never-had-a-chance kids — 10-year-old Ana and 5-year-old Mateo — by taking a cut from the workers he simultaneously exploits and protects. Uxbal is psychic, and he also makes a little side change by conveying communications from the dead to their loved ones. In an early scene, he tells a distraught couple that their young son, who was killed in a car accident, wants them to know he stole a watch the day before he died. This subplot is representative of all the subplots in this movie, which come, always, to a hopeless end.
But there’s more. Uxbal has sole custody of his children because his wife, Marambra, is bipolar and alcoholic and a sometime prostitute. She desperately loves her husband and kids (though she rages at the bed-wetting Mateo and hurts him), and Uxbal, knowing he has only months, if not weeks, to live — a secret he keeps from his loved ones — tries futilely to put the family back together. Because he never knew his father, and his mother died when he was very young, Uxbal wants more than anything to protect Ana and Mateo from the same fate, but he’s terminal, and he’s the only one there for them. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, Ana skips school to confront her father, who is clearly weakening. She finds him standing in the bathroom before a toilet bowl of blood-tainted urine, and he embraces her as she cries, “I don’t want you to leave.”
“I don’t want to go,” he answers.
The cinematography and music (done by Babel’s Rodrigo Prieto and Gustavo Santaolalla, respectively) are both achingly exquisite. But the two together, plus Bardem’s beautiful performance, still can’t redeem Biutiful’s whole, because what’s missing here is redemption itself.