Starring: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Guillermo Estrella, and Hanaa Bouchaib
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Runtime: 148 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
Winner of the Best Actor award (co-shared) at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and the Goya Award winner for Best Actor in 2011, Javier Bardem delivers a powerhouse of a performance in a bleak film about a street-wise father, desperate to protect his two children against life’s blows. The film’s title is the way “beautiful” sounds to native Spanish speakers, and is the first film in Spanish directed by the Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who gave us “Babel”.
Bardem plays the part of a single father, Uxbal, who is dying of liver cancer, and has to cope with a bi-polar wife, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez) from whom he is separated, and who unexpectedly lays claim to their children and wants him back. Her mental illness poses a threat, but also he is threatened by the illegal immigrants he is trying to help, and by the knowledge that his time is running out. Uxbal decides to hide the fact that he has cancer from his children, Mateo, and Ana (Guillermo Estrella, and Hanaa Bouchaib). He lives in crime-ridden Barcelona and has to reconcile feelings of mortality, with those of guilt, love, and devotion to his children. He is a stern and autocratic father, but his children never doubt his affection for them, and he desperately tries to recover memories of his own dead father. Spirituality is also part of the mix. Uxbal has the ability to receive messages from the dead, and he provides support to grieving relatives, who want contact with their loved ones. Uxbal’s hallucinations and other paranormal happenings occur throughout the film, and are surprisingly well-integrated with the movie.
The whole film has a sombre, melancholic tone to it. Inarritu’s direction is masterful, and there is wonderful cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto that highlights the film’s emotional and social power. The film is extraordinarily naturalistic, and Bardem’s performance towers above it all. He tragically struggles against the odds, to try and find what might be positive in his fate. The back streets of Barcelona are crime-ridden and filled with drug-peddlers, and all around him Uxbal finds people, like himself, who are desperate to survive. He is tormented by his environment, as much as others who live in it also are, but existence for any person is never simple. While fighting for the rights of the immigrants he happens to be trading, Uxbal cannot face the fact that he is cruelly exploiting them. While playing the medium to those around him by “selling the grave”, he takes money from poor people, who cannot afford to give him payment. But there is hope in his world, and Bardem captures that brilliantly. He is a soul in torment at nearly every level of his experience, and he rises above his anguish to care for, and forgive others. In a tender moment with his ex-wife, wonderfully acted by Maricel Alvarez, he asks her to forgive him for not knowing how to ever meet her needs.
This is an unrelentingly dark film, and the beauty of it lies deeply imbedded in its darkness. The film could have left you with joyous thoughts as you left the cinema, but it doesn’t, and the reason for that is because Bardem’s performance almost overshadows that possibility. One leaves the cinema, not so much inspired by the movie, but marvelling at how Bardem gave himself so completely to his role.
This film is not an easy journey, or an enjoyable one, and it has many disturbing images. The basement room full of dead immigrants, who were inadvertently gassed, because Uxbal purchased cheap heaters to warm them, is deeply unsettling, and the psychedelic strip-club scene, where Uxbal escapes from his torment for a brief moment, is dramatically symbolic of the film’s inherent sadness.
This film is quality cinema that is almost unbearable to watch, but Javier Bardem delivers a performance that few will be able to forget.
12 Random Films…