Cannes Film Festival juries may have made some wobbly decisions over the years, but giving Javier Bardem the Best Actor award for his career-best turn as a backstreet Barcelona operator confronting a sea of troubles while doing his best for his kids isn’t one of them.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a grafter who shuttles between corrupt police, Chinese sweatshop owners and illegal African street hawkers. He brings comfort to the bereaved by passing on messages from the deceased, while at the same time coping with his estranged wife’s bipolar disorder and facing the shadow of serious illness himself.
The role offers Bardem innumerable chances to chew the scenery. Instead, his work is a model of restraint: he invests the role with an affecting, sad-eyed dignity that keeps the story grounded. Attempting to embody the powerful idea that one person can really make a difference is no mean challenge, since there’s a danger of coming across like some empty symbol – but Bardem’s Uxbal is a man, brave and strong, hurting and vulnerable.
Actually, it’s just as well that Bardem is so effective, since the movie needs a strong lead to give its freeform theatrics a controlling pulse: can one film contain post-globalisation liberal hand-wringing, I-see-dead-people spirituality, kids fearing for their daddy’s health, gay villains and manic-depressive emotional hyper-dynamics?
Granted, it sounds a mess, and coming after the disappointments of 21 Grams and the dreadful Babel from Mexican maverick Alejandro González Iñárritu, one might be forgiven for being a little suspicious. Having parted ways with regular writer, Guillermo Arriaga, whose own 2008 project The Burning Plain was marred by overwrought contrivance, Iñárritu must have felt Biutiful was a make-or-break project for him to establish his creative identity, which is why the sheer absence of caution is disarming and captivating.
This is not a film for ascetic souls attuned to buttoned-down restraint. Its washed-out colours turn the city of Gaudí into a kind of purgatory, there’s an amazingly jarring score from Gustavo Santaolalla and the plot is a pile-up of Job-like tribulations. The exposed nerve endings, though, are apt for a story that tackles the question of whether the sufferings of the world cause us to fold in on ourselves or reach out.
The film asks whether the idea of ‘good’ is an irrelevance or a choice driven by some calling from within? Since even its title is drawn from a child’s innocent misspelling, it’s best not to expect ‘Biutiful’ to offer a rigorous thematic workout for these issues: this is a film assembled on instinct rather than reflection.
Like a piece of contemporary music where a whole array of discordant elements evoke a gut response easier to experience than explain (think Birtwistle, Xenakis, Carter), Iñárritu’s film won’t work for everyone. Yet, it offers consolation that, in a world of numbing, overwhelming anguish, human feeling is still possible. It’s a reminder that compassion isn’t always a rational decision, but an uncontrollable emotion. What can I say? I cried. Trevor Johnston