Two films by celebrated directors raise a glass to gloom
Published: January 27, 2011
Another Year4 Stars
Barcelona, Spain, contrary to popular belief, is a cold and generally crummy place, and no one – and I mean no one – has it worse there than Javier Bardem. I know it’s hard to believe, especially since we all saw that Woody Allen flick where the city was very good to him, but alas, to paraphrase one of the great philosophers of our time, Bardem’s got 99 problems and a bitch is among them.
In director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Bardem plays Uxbal, a weary resident of dreary Barcelona. His aforementioned wife (Maricel Álvarez) is an on-again, off-again junkie who sleeps with his brother (Eduard Fernández) from time to time. Uxbal’s work consists of arranging for Chinese immigrants to work in sweatshops, bribing the cops to leave alone the African immigrants hocking the goods, and communicating with the souls of the dead in order to ensure their peaceful transition into the afterlife. You read that right: Uxbal sees dead people.
Speaking of dead people, he also has to relocate Dad’s remains as a pending real estate development looms. That’ll bring in a bit more money, which is good, because Uxbal is trying to get all of his affairs in order. Yes, on top of everything, this poor man has been saddled with prostate cancer.
Like I said, no one has it quite as hard as Uxbal, and Bardem wears the weight of the world on his shoulders well. He’s a man who has borne these burdens for years, who likely came to terms with his mortality long ago and is far too preoccupied with keeping his business interests afloat and his children happy to sit around and mope about it. Whether he’s losing control of his bladder or his marriage, Bardem’s grim expression is that of a man beyond displays of anger or frustration.
Iñárritu is a vengeful god toward his protagonists, as eager to place them in harm’s way as he was in his previous outings, Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Unlike those others, Iñárritu wrote Biutiful without the help of collaborator Guillermo Arriaga, leaving this story in a mercifully linear order while keeping the duo’s knack for epic contrivance. The man has never worked harder to prolong any glimmer of redemption or hope, and while he does manage the occasionally eerie shot or genuinely poetic image over the course of 150 grueling minutes, Iñárritu’s fourth film is only kept from the verge of self-parody by Bardem’s soulful, understated performance.
England couldn’t be further from the grime and crime of Barcelona. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a warm and homey place, albeit one populated by its own ranks of middle-aged malcontents. Chief among them is Mary (Lesley Manville), a bona fide alcoholic and friend to Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), a happily married couple who have already heard that joke about their names hundreds of times before. He’s a geologist, she’s a social worker; they tend to a garden in their spare time, and they’re genuinely proud of their son, Joe (Oliver Maltman).
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