Biutiful is pretty hard to look at

Heart-wrenching nominee for Best Foreign Language Film offers many article title puns

Biutiful is pretty much a joyless film. Not that it fails to inspire optimism but rather it respects its heavy subject matter never undermining it with messages about silver linings. Here the imagery is vague and the ambiguity of the film’s tragic circumstances is its focus.

Biutiful stars Javier Bardem (in an Academy Award-nominated performance) as a man who supplies illegal immigrants for the Chinese mob in Barcelona in order to support his two children — and barely at that. His estranged wife is bipolar and adulterous and his brother is planning on cremating their buried father (whom they never met) for extra money. Adding to this bizarre chaos Bardem is dying from prostate cancer has a ponytail and oh yeah — he can talk to the dead.

Indeed this is a sad emotionally trying film. Bardem is wonderful in his role as Uxbal not because he has an Oscar-baiting hook to work with but rather because his responses to his situation are subtle. He is constantly tested and his inner turmoil is palpable. We see him respond with increasing desperation often silently.

There are no obvious monologues or points at which Bardem capital-A acts. His moments of terror kindness happiness and weakness are implicitly linked and despite the incredible elements of the plot he makes his character realistic. It is a complex performance one which never strays into melodrama.

The Barcelona of Biutiful is one of dank multicultural slums. The characters in the film are sweaty dirty and desperate to survive. Rightfully Uxbal’s hallucinations are not uplifting distractions but rather foreboding images. They are as unsettling as the hallucinations in Black Swan but less thrilling.

To illustrate at one point a character speaks of a thousand stars in the sky but Uxbal says they are not seeing something celestial — it’s their failing nervous system. It’s a strange bleak magical realism and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu ( Amores Perros Babel ) doesn’t attempt to juxtapose tragedy with fantastical beautiful images to drive home a message of hope. That’s too easy and this film is all about ambiguity and challenge.

Spirituality plays an important role in the story. Bea a medium (and Uxbal’s mother figure) offers him stones to give to his children — something which will supposedly protect them after he’s gone. It’s a hard moment to watch because her belief in the stones’ power seems to fail the reality of his situation. Later when these stones reappear they doubtless lead to some very deep reflective moments — whether they stir a sense of hope is in the eye of the beholder.

Admittedly this sounds like a hard film to watch. The subject matter is heavy and audiences may feel inclined to rebuff any stress it causes by laughing it off. But while feel-good movies have their place so too do challenging ones. Biutiful doesn’t hammer home messages and though it’s visually bleak it’s incredibly rich in detail. There is a lot to enjoy in this film but it requires openness.

Unlike Inarritu’s Babel — whose formula of several characters’ lives intersecting felt boring predictable and overused — the lives of Biutiful’s characters merge but they inform the larger story. This isn’t some sort of “all humanity is-linked” message — in fact the hint of that message is the only aspect that fails Biutiful. Supposedly the subplot of a Chinese factory owner’s taboo gay romance informs us that everyone experiences tragedy even those who willingly exploit women and children as labourers. That message is lost on me.