For a foreign-language film that's an unremitting downer, Alejandro González Iñárritu's Biutiful (Roadside Attractions) made a surprisingly strong showing in the Oscar nominations this year, with a best foreign language film nod for the movie and a best actor nod for Javier Bardem. * Then again, maybe Biutiful's recognition by academy voters isn't so strange. It's the kind of film that congratulates the viewer on her tolerance for the spectacle of unrelieved misery. This forced march through a chamber of personal and sociological horrors is difficult to endure but easy to forget.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a Barcelona-based—well, it's hard to say just what Uxbal does for a living. He's a kind of hustler/social worker who moves around the city, securing work for illegal African and Chinese immigrants for a pair of unscrupulous sweatshop bosses (Cheng Tai Shen and Luo Jin). Uxbal also moonlights as a psychic whom bereaved relatives hire to communicate with the recently deceased. His two school-age children live with him in a grimy, cramped apartment. Their mother (Maricel Álvarez), a bipolar ex-addict, drifts in and out of their lives, making promises she can't keep. Did I mention that Uxbal suffers from advanced prostate cancer and may have only months to live? Oh, and because Uxbal was abandoned by his father and orphaned by his mother as a child, he's determined to do anything to spare his children the same fate after his all-but-inevitable early death.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona this ain't. The honey-colored Catalonian capital looks dingy and industrial, illuminated by a sickly greenish light. (The cinematography, by longtime Iñárritu collaborator Rodrigo Prieto, is evocatively gloomy, though his interiors are so dimly lit that it takes a while to distinguish some of the minor characters from one another.) Every plot thread—of which there are many, including a police raid on the Senegalese immigrants and an illicit gay love affair between the Chinese bosses—proceeds with the same fatalistic logic, setting up an already wretched situation that then gets pushed to the limit of imaginable horror. There's a weird bravado in Iñárritu's commitment to miserablism, but long before the two-hour point (in a two-and-a-half-hour movie), numbness sets in. It's not a good sign when you find yourself silently urging Bardem's saintly protagonist to just die already.
Bardem is a titan of an actor, and he carries this sodden mess of a movie as far as he can. But the palette of emotional colors the script gives him to work with ranges from navy blue to indigo. Not to mention that, in the majority of scenes, he's acting opposite someone who barely qualifies as a character: The unfeeling sweatshop owners, noble immigrants, and grotesquely dysfunctional ex-wife serve as simple foils for Uxbal's flamboyantly self-sacrificial misery.
At one point, Uxbal's ex-wife Marambra tells him, "I like seeing people smile"; the Spanish expression she uses translates to "I like seeing people's teeth." I'm with Marambra—this movie could have done with at least the odd glimpse of Bardem's choppers. Uxbal does share some fleeting moments of joy with his children (played with touching naturalism by Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella), and a tender exchange or two with Ige (Diaryatou Daff), the Senegalese woman who moves in with them as he grows sicker. But scene after scene paints Uxbal's life, and those of all who surround him, as such a vale of tears that an early exit seems like a blessing.
Guillermo Arriaga, the screenwriter for Iñárritu's three previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel) has gone his own somber way, taking his propensity for chronologically scrambled storylines with him. Written by Iñárritu with Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bo, Biutiful—the title comes from the daughter's misspelling of an English word on her homework—is a steady, linear descent into hell. Even if you weren't a fan of the criss-crossing global subplots of Babel (a film I found by turns brilliant and overbearing), Biutiful may leave you wishing for the respite of a quick jaunt through the desert with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt. Anything to escape the company of this Catalonian Captain Bringdown.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2011: This article previously stated Biutiful received a best picture Oscar nomination. (Return to the corrected sentence.)