Bardem, ‘Biutiful’ Oscar material

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, February 4, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Downbeat, grimy, sunk in human misery: If you’re going to release a movie like this, it helps to pack a couple of big Oscar nominations along in the process.

That’s why “Biutiful” is opening nationally now, after playing in New York and L.A. in December to qualify for Academy Award consideration. Last week it snagged nominations for best actor and best foreign-language film, nods that must have brought sighs of relief from the distributor of this tough, difficult movie.

The actor in question is fully deserving. Javier Bardem, who won a supporting-actor Oscar for his single-minded killer in “No Country for Old Men,” is the lead in “Biutiful,” and he’s on screen for most of the film’s frankly exhausting 147 minutes. He carries the picture like some noble, wounded animal trying to find its way home before it dies.

His character, Uxbal, has fashioned a hustling existence in an urban underworld that operates through a system of bribes and exploitation. It could be almost any city, but it happens to be Barcelona — a decidedly non-touristy version.

Early in the film, Uxbal learns that he has inoperable cancer and will likely be dead in a few months, at best. He is, nevertheless, stuck in his role as a middle man for an illegal system, populated by corrupt officials, cut-rate manufacturers exploiting illegal immigrants, and the immigrants who work like slaves.

Uxbal also has a bipolar, chronically drug-addicted ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez). She’s exactly the wrong person to take care of their kids, but how many options does he have?

The world of “Biutiful” is created by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, whose previous films include “Amores Perros” and “Babel.” Someday he will surely want to try a romantic comedy, but his morose vision (shot through with shafts of hope) is so vivid, the hardships of “Biutiful” begin to take on biblical proportions.

Although the film feels overdetermined with woes, the look of Barcelona’s shabby backstreets and rundown sweatshops is strikingly visualized. And that powerful storytelling hook — what would you do if you knew you had a few weeks left? — keeps the through-line active, even if the movie wears you down.

Javier Bardem is the key to the enterprise. It’s hard to understand how a guy with such a distinctive face can be a chameleon, but Bardem seems to transform himself from role to role; his characters in “Before Night Falls,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “The Sea Inside” couldn’t be more different from each other.

He slogs through the stations of this film’s slaughterhouse with tarnished heroism. Uxbal is not a hero, but given a death’s-bed chance, he manages to make a fitting exit.


Javier Bardem gives a heroic, Oscar-nominated performance as a Barcelona bottom-feeder who learns he has only a few weeks to live and tries to repair his tarnished life. “Babel” director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu piles on so much misery that the film becomes frankly exhausting before its 147 minutes are over, but Bardem’s performance elevates the material. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Rated: R for violence, nudity

Showing: Egyptian

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