‘Biutiful’: An Overly Complex Film

The underground workings of Barcelona are harshly illuminated in “Biutiful”, a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Film. Focused on the life of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a father recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, the movie unravels the pressures on different groups in society through the personal story of one man.

The movie portrays crude conditions undocumented immigrants face, as Uxbal helps with the logistics of their black market dealings and makes underground trade agreements with the immigrants. While these side plots are clearly meant to affect viewers, it isn’t clear how. The story of immigrants from Senegal, Africa selling counterfeit products and drugs evokes pity for the hopelessness of their situation as Uxbal struggles to smooth their relations with police; however, Chinese immigrants are shown as brutal and unsympathetic in exploitative underground sweatshops.

In addition, an underdeveloped subplot of Uxbal’s psychic ability to communicate with the dead is brought in to play only a few times in the entire movie, and is inconsequential. While jolting viewers with Uxbal’s unexpected ability, the movie presents it as just another minor detail in his life; a way he earns some money on the side is by relaying last messages of loved ones to those willing to pay. Perhaps meant to provide further evidence of Uxbal’s ability to relate with all types of people, the few times it is addressed merely alienates the viewers, as a psychic element takes away the film’s most striking feature—its realism.

These elements underwrite the more personal story of Uxbal’s struggle to find a trusted adult to care for his children as his cancer worsens. The most moving scenes feature Uxbal and his everyday interactions with his children; teaching his son how to eat politely and trying to protect his daughter from the reality of her mother’s abusive behavior and his corrupt work. Such intimate moments highlight the excellence of the acting, which is entirely believable, especially from characters such as Uxbal’s bipolar wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez).

To add to the movie’s realism, the film is shot with blunt camera work, moving quickly in all directions as if hand-held. The style embodies the frantic tone of the movie, as do the jarring sound effects.

Uxbal’s struggle to become the father he never had is the gem of the movie, illuminated by powerful acting and authentic interactions. However, the unclear political undertones and subplots extending the plot-heavy movie to two and a half hours do little to grasp viewers’ attention.

The film attempts to show that even Uxbal’s dark world of dysfunctional familial relations and cruel business can still be “Biutiful” (a reference to a spelling error by Uxbal’s daughter) because of the love in his life. Nonetheless, viewers leave with little hope for those in Uxbal’s world at the end of the film, gaining only a new appreciation that they don’t live in it.