In all of his previous films, director Alejandro González Iñárritu chronicled the mostly tragic lives of many different characters. However, with his 2010 drama, Biutiful, the internationally renowned Mexican filmmaker focuses on a single protagonist who faces just as many tragic circumstances as all the characters in Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated Babel -- combined.
How is Uxbal's (Javier Bardem) life going wrong? Let me count the ways. One: he's a single father of two children who scrapes out a living through a number of illegal activities -- he oversees a small drug operation and he helps manage a sweatshop run by two Asian gangsters. Two: his ex-wife, an addict whose erratic behavior continues to complicate life for Uxbal and their kids, is sleeping with Uxbal's brother. Three: his own father recently passed away. Four: he's urinating blood, and about to get a dire prognosis. Five: he can talk to the dead. As his health continues to deteriorate, Uxbal tries to get his affairs in order, keep his kids safe, and find forgiveness for a selfish act that leads to multiple deaths.
Miraculously, Biutiful turns out to be less of a depressing slog than Iñárritu's last two films, thanks in large part to the excellent lead performance by Javier Bardem. Many actors would have begged for our sympathies by playing up the melodramatic elements of Uxbal's circumstances -- Nic Cage would probably have turned this character into a screaming ball of neuroses and tics. But Bardem is a strong, masculine presence who's magnetic onscreen even when he's not doing much of anything; he's a perfect embodiment of the old axiom that less is more -- consider his chilling, Oscar-winning turn as the relentless killer in No Country for Old Men. He understands that what Uxbal is going through is so incredibly melodramatic that the only way for it to stay real is to minimize his emotional responses. He's not stoic, just restrained, and because he modulates his performance this way, the few times the character does explode it's all the more powerful.
Bardem's uncanny emotional economy actually seems to have had an effect on Iñárritu as a director. Unlike Babel and 21 Grams, Biutiful doesn't seem designed for the sole purpose of putting the audience through an emotional gauntlet. Uxbal is arguably the most complex and sympathetic character he's created, and for the first time in his career Iñárritu fully trusts his audience and his actor. It's not a radical change in tone -- there is an unrelenting sadness that weighs down every frame of the movie -- but for the first time it feels like it's the people in the movie that are struggling as opposed to us in the audience.