THERE'S A PERSISTENT, suffocating weight on Uxbal (Javier Bardem), on whose life Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest film, Biutiful, meditates. Amid the grime of Barcelona's ghetto, Uxbal cobbles together an existence to support his two children by brokering sweatshop deals between powerless immigrants and corrupt contractors, as well as moonlighting as a medium between the recently deceased and their family members. If that weren't enough, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), the mother of his children, is a bipolar junkie who carries on with his equally corrupted strip club-happy brother behind his back, and there's also the matter of Uxbal being on the brink of death due to some form of renal failure that causes him to piss blood and suffer from urinary incontinence. Needless to say, things are grim.
Despite the darkness that pervades Biutiful—which weaves its way through terrifying basements where slave laborers bunk down and cluttered slum apartments with filthy bathrooms—it's ultimately a positive film. No, really: Though dogged by crushing setbacks, Uxbal is singularly, desperately fixated on securing his children's welfare in preparation for his own passing. The viewer shares the bittersweet relief when he has a tender moment with them, when Marambra shows flashes of maternal trustworthiness, or when Uxbal feels he is, at least in small ways, protecting the welfare of the exploited who are nonetheless under his partial authority. He's a complicated man met with constant setbacks and impossible circumstances, but his relentless fight against them is noble.
Iñárritu (Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams) asks a great deal of his audience, trudging them through a mucky tragedy with pitifully scarce relief. It might be too much were it not for Bardem's performance, which flawlessly bridges the disparate aspects of an imperfect character into a strong, relatable whole. Like the film's title, Uxbal's life may be fundamentally flawed, but the significance of his struggle is as valuable as life can get.