The hardest movies to review are the ones you respect and admire but don't love and also and this is the crucial part aren't angered by. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful is just that sort of film. The story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a single father with terminal prostate cancer and the burden of a life without stability, is soulful, tragic and made with loving care. But it's also so gloomy that you're not sure who to recommend it to. Before sending anyone off to see it you would feel the urge to pack their pockets with a few provisos, such as these encouragements: Bardem is amazing (and was honored with the best actor award at Cannes for his work). If you believe in the afterlife, this one's for you. And, on a more practical note, this film will make you feel good about paying for life insurance and getting regular prostate exams (if applicable).
That may sound flip, but I consider my own threshold for cinematic misery to be unusually high. I sobbed through The Sea Inside, which featured Bardem not just dying but paralyzed, and walked out bursting with the desire to get people to see it. As Biutiful ended I felt paralyzed myself, by a true overdose of the tragedy of the human condition Inarritu's Amores Perros and Babel were uplifting compared to this. I also felt slightly abused, as if there were some underlying narrative sadism at work, albeit of a very arty sort.
Uxbal lives on the margins of criminality in Barcelona. He manages a group of African immigrants who sells fake designer purses made by Chinese immigrants in a shoddy little factory. He's the go-between, passing off the purses to the Africans, and passing bribes to the cops to keep the vendors from being arrested and/or deported. Uxbal genuinely cares about the vendors, particularly Ekweme (Cheikh Ndiaye), a young purse seller from Senegal, but is viewed with great suspicion by most of them, including Ekweme's wife Ige (Diaryatou Daff). She's right to have her reservations: Uxbal is using them, after all, kind as he may be. And even when he tries to do good things for his "employees," it doesn't always work out (and in one instance leads to horrifying and tragic consequences).
The movie captures the sense of the cyclical trap these characters are in. They depend on each other, even though no one is exactly dependable. A young Chinese mother watches Uxbal's daughter and young son while he's out hustling on the street, and the food she scrapes together to put in their mouths is no better than what he can come up with they're all just barely staying on the treadmill. Yet getting off it isn't a choice. Uxbal, given just a couple of months to live in the film's first few minutes, is desperate to provide for his children, who have no one to take care of them, not even a grandparent.
They do have a mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) although she's not of much use. She's bi-polar, prone to going off her meds and apparently incapable of fidelity. (She's a quasi-legitimate masseuse and one of her regular clients is Uxbal's brother Tito, played by Eduard Fernandez.) Alvarez is fantastically compelling in the role if it weren't for the hesitation and doubt we see in Uxbal's eyes when she tries to convince him she's better, we'd probably believe her. She is the personification of narcissistic unreliability; witness the fact that she never seems to notice that Uxbal is obviously ill. He's so obviously in need of help that you may feel the urge to leave a casserole in front of the screen.
Inarritu, who for his first three films teamed with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, co-wrote Biutiful with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone. This screenplay is far more linear, and without the fracturing favored by Arriaga (and which is not always successful, their 21 Grams was a mess). But it has its own peculiarity. Just as Matt Damon's character communicated reluctantly with the dead in Hereafter, so does Uxbal. The difference is that he can see them (and we can too, in various creepy poses). He could run a profitable sideline business getting paid by grieving relatives to speak with their recently departed, but chooses not to; it's too much of a psychic burden on a man who is already overwhelmed with the weight of the world.
This piece of magical realism seems to be Inarritu and his co-writers' gift to us, their means of leavening the hardships of the rest of the movie. It is, if you will, the proviso they slip in our pockets (Nothing really ends, circle of life, and so forth). It's a funny combination, this deeply gritty look at immigrant communities with the fanciful aspect of speaking to the dead. Whether it gives you solace may depend on your faith; perhaps Biutiful is, in the end, a film meant for true believers.