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Movie Review: 'Biutiful' delivers a memorable character piece

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Directed by: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Álvarez, Eduard Fernández, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin
Rated: R

If you're looking for a way to pass the time with some nice, entertaining fluff that will make you forget all of your troubles, you probably will want to skip “Biutiful.” That's not to imply there's anything wrong with fluff entertainment or that this film is depressing.

It's not.

It is intense, serious and thought-provoking, while at times very sad.

Its plot devices comprise the indomitability of the human spirit, the bond between parents and their children, and a performance - from actor Javier Bardem - that demands attention.

At two-and-a-half hours, it's also longer than a lot of movies these days, but it never lets up on the intensity. There is a reason Bardem was nominated for an Oscar, and “Biutiful” also was nominated for best foreign film. It's an instant classic.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu is familiar with emotion-wrenching stories.

His 2000 breakthrough film, “Amores Perros,” was a trifecta of stories connected by an intertwining auto accident. Each tale dealt with the everyday realities of pain, loss and regret  that we all must face. “Babel,” in 2006, also featured interlocking stories (a quartet this time) with a tragedy as a common thread.

“Biutiful” features stories about the individual characters but is more straightforward in its style, the primary focus of which is on Uxbal (played by Bardem) and his struggles. Uxbal is a character of biblical proportions. Job came to my mind, but some reviews have given him a more messianic stature. It's hard to say; the character is so well written - and acted - that every viewer will no doubt have a unique opinion.

Bardem will undoubtedly be remembered for his pneumatic cattle prod-wielding ultimate bad guy in the Coen Brothers' “No Country For Old Men.” He was great in that (and cold-bloodedly evil), but his range is so much greater.

Uxbal is a resident of Barcelona. He's estranged from his bipolar wife, played by Maricel Álvarez - who turns in a performance that matches Bardem's.

Uxbal is employed by gangsters of Barcelona and deals with smuggling and housing illegal Chinese immigrants who work in a mob-managed sweatshop.

He also takes care of his two young children and is a caring, loving father trying to do the right thing - no matter what “doing the right thing” entails when it comes to the kids.

He also finds out that he has very little time left to live due to a medical condition - not mob-related violence. He desperately wants to make sure the kids will be taken care of and also decides to show an act of kindness to the Chinese workers who sleep in a cold basement. This act is a textbook example of the Mark Twain adage that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The result of his attempt at kindness toward his captive workers is devastating - to Uxbal and to the viewer.

Director González Iñárritu and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto have chosen to use the hand-held, “shaky cam” style of photography that is nearly becoming passé these days. But it's a wise choice here. The camera (and thus the audience) gets up close and personal with Uxbal, who is not only a complex character but is being played by one of the most subtly intense actors working today. Bardem can convey emotions, thoughts and intentions with glances and facial expressions that lesser actors couldn't manage with an extended soliloquy.

As sad and seemingly bleak as the tone of “Biutiful” is, there is a triumph that rings true in the end. We have examined a life that was truly worth the examination. Uxbal is a good man caught up in unfortunate circumstances and who has, admittedly, made some bad choices. His love for his kids, and even his estranged wife, is evident, however.

When the film is over, you'll know that you witnessed an acting performance that - despite the fact that Bardem didn't win the Oscar - is as good as you could ever hope to see.[[In-content Ad]]


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