Ninety percent of the time, it’s too much to bear even for the audience, so imagine what those people up on the screen are going though. Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu revels in shoveling out far more than a fair share of atrocious luck and tremendous suffering to his characters, and what’s more, they’re often intertwined with each other in a long, geographical rope of misery and tragedy.

It happened in 2000’s “Amores Perros.” It happened in 2003’s “21 Grams.” The clincher was 2006’s “Babel,” in which one guy’s marriage in California falls apart, and the repercussions swing halfway around the globe to shatter the family of a Moroccan goat-herders, then does another tailspin and alters the fate of a Tokyo businessman. Heavy, heavy stuff.

The director is also known for a complex and tortured narrative structure where events loop out and come together, and time sequences shift and merge. In the process, details and tied ends are sacrificed in the name of the bigger picture, which in Iñárritu’s case implies maximum drama, maximum feel-badness. It’s one of the reasons why critics have been more than a little restrained in lauding one of the most impressionistic auteurs working in cinema today.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu
Run Time 148 minutes
Language Spanish (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Opens June 25, 2011

The story of a crooked father’s quest for redemption, “Biutiful” comes as a surprise, a departure from the usual Iñárritu MO: linear, focused, single-minded. This time, the director follows an agenda with only one item: Javier Bardem.

Bardem is Uxbal, a low-level gangster in Barcelona’s slummy underworld, acting as a middleman between Chinese slave laborers toiling over tourist souvenirs and Senegalese street vendors who sell the trinkets off colorful little carts. Uxbal isn’t a bad man, but he’s never been good either, and the thought plagues him once he discovers that prostate cancer has eaten away his insides and he has about three weeks left on Earth. Like the bureaucrat in Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (“To Live”), Uxbal decides it’s time for redemption. Fortunately, he lives in an environment where everyone (himself included) is in dire need of support, kindness and understanding — there’s no lack of material or opportunity to do the right thing.

But two major distractions stand in Uxbal’s way: his alcoholic, abusive, bipolar wife (a stunning performance from Maricel Alvarez) and an ability to hear the dead as they talk about their crimes, sorrows and regrets before leaving this terrain forever. Also, Uxbal barely has enough energy to get himself through the day; the camera lingers with a sort of clinical curiosity over his blood-clouded urine and the adult-size diaper taped over his waist.

What keeps him going are his two young children, Mateo (Guillermo Estrella) and Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib), whose misspelling of the word “beautiful” becomes a deep source of inspiration for their father (and the movie title).

Bardem was nominated for an Oscar (Best Actor) for his role in “Biutiful” — a first for a non-English language film — and he gives off a preternatural glow in every single frame. Iñárritu keeps the story and the camera affixed to Bardem’s ravaged face, his knobby hands, the way he throws his face to the sky as if asking God to forgive them, for they know not what they do. A modern-day Jesus on more levels than one, Bardem struggles through the muck of the film’s narrative like a linebacker in a rainstorm, and holds everything together between his scarred, shaky palms.

Iñárritu deploys a language and logic fast becoming obsolete from today’s cinema: He’s relentless and verbose and doesn’t give a rat’s cavity about audience comfort zones. He says no to averted gazes, to shutting out the sounds of sobbing, retching and other realities of human life (or death). Iñárritu insists you witness it all, especially Uxbal’s weaknesses, his streak of evil, the way he shelves his good intentions and goes into denial, how he longs to be a hero to his children but can only expose his flaws. Uxbal is a mess, and there’s no way to repair the wreckage. But his kids love him. How they love him.

Admittedly, the film could use a paring down, or at least a less carnivorous approach to the fleshy/bloody problems that define Uxbal’s existence. Still, Bardem rises from what excess oil there is like a phoenix in cargo pants.

The verdict in the United States and Europe was that Bardem was excellent, but the film — nah. Maybe so. But after a certain point, it’s meaningless to separate “Biutiful” from Uxbal, and the story becomes both an appendage and a humbly lit stage, for a performance that could possibly cause Satan himself to shed a single tear.

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