Thursday, February 3, 2011

When things go from bad to worse

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's reach exceeds his grasp in Biutiful, but Javier Bardem's performance is nothing less than haunting.

Javier Bardem probably is best known to American audiences for winning a supporting-actor Oscar for his performance as the quietly ruthless Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. The premier Spanish actor now has been nominated for another Oscar: He's up for best actor for his performance in Biutiful, the latest movie from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Set entirely in the Spanish city of Barcelona, Biutiful also has been nominated for best foreign language film.

That's plenty of pedigree, but I'm not sure Biutiful lives up to it. I say this as an admirer of Inarritu's work in movies such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Inarritu's well-regarded trilogy tried to capture the tormented complexity of contemporary life. Collaborating with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, Inarritu attempted to devour what we might call "the whole contemporary ball of wax," a world shattered into into a zillion painful pieces.

In Biutiful, Inarritu, who has parted ways with Arriaga, has written his own script, concentrating a whole lot of woe in one character, Bardem’s Uxbal, a troubled and troubling man.

Bardem creates great sympathy for a man who’s engaged in illegal activities. But that's only one of Uxbal's many burdens: He's dying of a long-untended prostate cancer; he's separated from his drug-addicted, alcoholic wife, and he's attempting to raise two children -- a daughter and a son -- without much support. The gifted Bardem makes us share in the agonies that gather around Uxbal like angry furies. We feel for him, even when his torments are self-inflicted.

Bardem shows us that Uxbal is keenly aware of his shortcomings, burdened by guilt and sometimes unable to control his rage. And, yet, somewhere deep in the core of Uxbal’s being, Bardem finds traces of innocence, trust and tenderness. He gives a performance of amazing complexity.

But Biutiful strives to be more than a character study, which may be why it runs into trouble. Uxbal’s tumultuous life extends into Barcelona's lower depths where he works with Chinese businessmen who exploit immigrants in horrific sweatshops. He also manages the affairs of African illegals who operate as street peddlers, often running afoul of the police despite Uxbal’s dutiful payment of bribes.

If you’re familiar with Inarritu’s work, you will not be surprised to learn that Biutiful can be arrestingly – even beautifully – photographed. You’ll also know that Inarritu creates knockout sequences. But you may also remember that, like a hungry kid, Inarritu tends to pile too much on his plate and that not all of his attempts at metaphor are equally effective.

For reasons that never are fully explored, Uxbal is able to communicate with the dead. He has the power to slip into the next world and talk with the recently departed, a paranormal skill with which he evidently was born. Not everyone appreciates this talent. In an early scene, a distraught mother accuses Uxbal of lying about what her young, departed son has told him.

To further thicken an already thick stew, Uxbal and his brother are involved in exhuming the grave of their dead father, a man Uxbal never knew. At the age of 24, Uxbal’s father fled to Mexico to escape Franco’s fascist minions. He died shortly after leaving Spain, and his body was shipped home. Commercial developers now want to open the man's crypt and move his body.

If Biutiful has an emotional core, it revolves around issues of fatherhood. Uxbal wants to be a good father, but he’s fearful about what will happen to his kids when he’s gone. Will they remember him? What can he leave them? Will they even be safe? Their mother (Maricel Alvarez) has short-lived periods of sobriety, but seems unable to resist her worst impulses.

Inarritu isn't afraid of gloom, angst and desperation, but it's possible that, this time, he has confused depression with thematic seriousness. There’s no denying that Biutiful can be bit of an ordeal.

But it can't entirely be dismissed either. If Inarritu's reach exceeds his grasp, at least he’s reaching for something, and in Bardem he has found an actor who can plumb these kinds of depths with extraordinary compassion.

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