By Richard von Busack
It may get the Oscar for best foreign film, but it's first award is for most depressing director; swiping the crown of thorns from Gaspar Noé’s brow is Alfonso González Iñárritu (Babel, etc.). In the press notes for Biutiful, Iñárritu sounds like that beer-commercial Solomon, the World’s Most Interesting Man: “Modern society suffers, among many things, from a profound thanatophobia.” It’s usually fear of life, not death, that audiences are accused of. Either that, or they’re accused of participating in corporate death culture.
In Barcelona’s rugged Santa Coloma district, Uxbal (Javier Bardem) has learned that he has stage-four prostate cancer. He has rather a lot on his insufficiently washed plate: his estranged wife, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), is a promiscuous bipolar case who is too close to Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernández). And his two children are growing up neglected. Seeing the end in sight, Uxbal works night and day; he’s a liaison man between the neighborhood’s teeming illegal immigrants and the cut-rate employers who hire them. Since Uxbal is psychic—more specifically, he sees dead people—the moribund man makes some money on the side, transcribing parting words from the newly deceased.
Álvarez has a beguiling nose, and when she puts hers next to Bardem’s own Roman beak, it’s visual harmony at work. She has the dread charm of someone in the manic stage, all lit up like a Christmas tree with bad chemicals. But Iñárritu makes the decision to let us know how out of control Marambra is too early on: when she wakes up Tito by dancing topless on his back and spilling red wine over him. The wine cascade is meant to be a visual rhyme with the bloody urine Uxbal keeps spouting.
The beauty of anything but rot is either missing or bruised. Barcelona’s coast might as well be as far away as Borneo; eventually, we see one sunset over the water, and the sun is diffracted into the shape of a mushroom cloud. The only beach we see washes up cadavers.
There is no fun for the poor in a neighborhood Iñarritu rhapsodizes about (“It has the DNA of a perfect U.N.”), neither in color itself (everything in queasy neon and shiny with grease) nor in sex. At a strip club, with mutant dancers decorated with extra nipples on their asses, Bitufiul goes beyond its belabored world-is-a-ghetto point right into straight disgustorama.