Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu
(2010, R, 147 min)
★ ★ ½

Biutiful is two-and-a-half hours of tragedy porn. It tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a father of two young children who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. If that’s not sad enough, the film also provides an ex-wife with bipolar disorder. Not crying yet? You will be after you witness the plight of Chinese and African immigrants living in Barcelona, including a man soon to be deported and forced to abandon his wife and infant child. Your heart will further be wrenched by a back-story about Uxbal’s own father, who fled Franco’s regime in 1966 only to die of pneumonia in Mexico two months later. None of these are significant spoilers; wait ’til you see the stuff I’ve left out.

The film is directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who manages to make this deluge of despair mostly convincing, and thanks to its star Bardem it’s very well acted (he won Best Actor at Cannes as well as a deserved Oscar nomination). There’s too much muchness, but while I watched it I was reminded of Departures, the dreadfully saccharine Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film from two years ago that was similarly overburdened, and I was thankful that Biutiful at least is not that; it plays it straight and isn’t blatantly manipulative. One question, though: why, on top of all this, does Iñárritu add a supernatural storyline about communing with the dead?

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu

That’s what Uxbal does as a side job: He’s a medium who speaks with the deceased on behalf of their families. At a time of crisis he visits a friend who is also a medium and counsels him on how to cope with his illness and how to administer his gifts. The psychic subplot is an uneasy fit with the film’s prevailing social realism; its superficial death-is-not-the-end spirituality undermines the grit of Iñárritu’s depiction of multicultural poverty. As magical realism it might have worked, but Iñárritu treats it too literally to function in this context.

Uxbal’s actual job is as a liaison of sorts between illegal Chinese laborers and employers looking to circumvent labor unions. He clashes with Hai (Taisheng Cheng), who houses the illegal workers and, in yet another subplot, is being manipulated by his male lover Liwei (Luo Jin); it’s implied during one scene that Hai’s sexuality is a secret poorly kept from his family.

The title of the film refers to a misspelling by Uxbal’s daughter, but also represents a self-conscious irony on the part of the filmmakers. It’s about sorrow, you see, but also about how beautiful life is despite the pain, how tenderly photographed and full of love! Iñárritu has a tendency to overreach, both thematically (globalization in Babel) and artistically (non-linear structuring in 21 Grams). His skill is clear, but he’s ambitious to a fault.