Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film, Biutiful, exposes the underbelly of Barcelona, that part of the city inhabited by immigrants from Asia and Africa, who earn their keep by making and peddling gray market goods to tourists. In a cold, dank factory, Chinese refugees spend their days in sweat shop-like conditions, sewing together knock-off purses that are then sold on the street by young men from Senegal. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) divides his time between managing this illegal operation and taking care of his two children, Ana and Mateo.
Uxbal is a crook with a heart. He cares about the illegals working for him, particularly Li, the young Chinese mother who babysits for Ana and Mateo. Worried about her and her child, he buys space heaters for the basement room where the Chinese sleep dormitory style on the cold concrete floor. When the Senegalese men are arrested and deported (the police were willing to take bribes to look the other way on the counterfeited goods, but not when the men begin selling drugs), Uxbal takes in a mother, Ige (Diarytu Daff) and her baby who are left behind.
His offer, while a true humanitarian gesture, ends up benefitting Uxbal more than he might have imagined. Diagnosed with cancer, Uxbal finds he has two months to live, two short months to make arrangements for his children. The list of people he can trust begins to dwindle. Uxbal’s bipolar ex-wife Marambra (an excellent Maricel Álvarez) struggles with addiction and abuses the children. Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández), sleeps with Marambra and is mercenary in his business dealings. In the end, Ige is the only one he can trust with his children. But she, too, is torn, wanting to return to Senegal to be with her husband.
Uxbal’s agony is heartbreaking. He can withstand the pain from his illness; what he cannot endure is the thought that he is abandoning his children. Never having known his own father who left for Mexico and never returned, Uxbal worries that his children will forget him.
Further complicating Uxbal’s plight is his “gift” to see and speak to the dead. Neighbors seek him out to receive and deliver messages, yet grow angry when what they hear is upsetting. The demons from beyond stay with Uxbal. When he stares at his bedroom ceiling he sees large dark blobs, and knows they portend his death.
In 2008, Bardem won an Academy Award for his supporting role in No Country for Old Men, and this year he is nominated for an Oscar in the best actor category for his performance in Biutiful. Bardem has a dominating, some might even say threatening, presence onscreen, with his distinctive profile and mane of dark hair. In Biutiful, his demeanor suggests vulnerability, not only because of his illness but also for his failure to take care of his children.
While the film is set in Barcelona, the story could be told about any city—New York, Washington, Los Angeles, London—where recent immigrants, legal or not, live in squalor for the opportunity to earn a living, however meager. But there’s another reason Biutiful‘s theme resonates. We can identify with Uxbal’s fear that he will be unable to protect his children. How many people have struggled, perhaps in vain, to keep a loved one safe? And sometimes, like Uxbal, those we least expect to help are the ones we must depend upon the most.