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For Your Consideration: 'Biutiful'

It was difficult to write this review of Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's new movie, Biutiful, not least because discussion of some of its finer points would involve an intolerable number of spoilers. Suffice it to say that this is a profoundly sad, lonely, yet ultimately uplifting film, one that made me lose my way in its complex characters and distressing situations as few movies are able to do. It is set in the gritty neighborhoods of Barcelona, where most of the shooting took place (grimy cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and evocative original score by Gustavo Santaolalla): streets, squats, and sweat shops where African and Chinese immigrants scrabble for a living. Uxbal, played by the magnificent Javier Bardem, works as a go-between in the shady affairs of this foreign underclass, only a few steps ahead of the police and his own poverty. Bardem also has a lucrative gift, a spiritual sight by which he speaks to the recently dead, trying to help them accept their own deaths and move on to the next world. At the same time, he does the best he can to raise his two kids (Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella, both natural and adorable), keeping them clear of the emotional roller coaster of their manic-depressive mother, Marambra, played with disturbing frenzy by Maricel Álvarez. Worse, a diagnosis of prostate cancer, already spreading to other parts of his body, is about to stop him in his tracks.

Perhaps because González Iñárritu did not work this time with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the story is not juggled annoyingly among an impossible number of subplots, as in their previous collaborations Babel and 21 Grams. Working from his own screenplay (credit shared with Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone), González Iñárritu still does not seem to settle on what kind of film he is trying to make: supernatural suspense thriller? political issue documentary? family drama? There are some distracting subplots -- a Chinese sweatshop owner's hidden homosexuality, the plight of an African immigrant couple -- but the story hangs principally on the weary face of Uxbal. Javier Bardem was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his work here (he has already won the equivalent award at the Cannes Festival), and purely on merits he surpasses the front-runner, Colin Firth in The King's Speech, but Bardem has won that award once before (in 2007, for No Country for Old Men), which probably removes him from the running this year. This film is the antidote for anyone who still needs to exorcise the image of the implacable hit man Bardem played in No Country for Old Men: here he is more calm and resigned than vengeful, but in many ways just as single-minded, his dark stare just as fixed against whatever may come.

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The film's other Oscar nomination was for Best Foreign Film, an award it will likely win, as much as compensation for Bardem not being picked for Best Actor as on its own merits. Some critics have found the film overly dark, and perhaps it is: no doubt about it, an air of desperation grows thicker and thicker as the plot progresses. Uxbal is no more a perfect father than any of the rest of us, for any number of reasons -- he feeds the children cereal for dinner, and the film's title represents his attempt to help his daughter with English spelling for her homework -- but he is his kids' best chance. What will happen to them after he is gone? Another spiritual medium, who appears only in one scene and who helped foster Uxbal's visionary gift, tells him the hard truth: he does not really take care of these kids, the universe takes care of them. The film's message seems to be that the universe is doing a pretty bad job by all of us. The medium also reminds him that they received their gift for free so they should not expect pay for what they see: that is easy for her to say, in her much more comfortable surroundings, but no one can begrudge Uxbal not turning down, usually with a somewhat guilty look, the folded bills that thankful family members force upon him. As his time grows short, he is amassing as much money as he can put aside for his children's future. It is a futile enterprise: the universe will have to take care of these children.

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