Somewhere along the line, we've lost the ability to appreciate a film as deeply felt and intuitive as Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Biutiful.
Too often, we simply look at the thumbnail - which, in this case, would be, "A man finds he is dying of cancer" - and say, "Ehh, not for me." But Biutiful is about much more than death and dying.
Rather, with the deeply soulful performance by Javier Bardem in the central role, Inarritu has created a story that captures the human dilemma at both its most simple and its most complex.
Bardem plays Uxbal, a single father in Barcelona dealing with a pre-adolescent daughter and younger son. He's concerned, he's involved - but he's also exhausted by the hustle of day-to-day life.
Specifically, he's making ends meet by scraping together a living dealing in the gray market and worse. He is the middle-man for a ring of counterfeit goods - Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags - that he supplies to a group of undocumented African immigrants, who sell them on the Barcelona streets. They give a percentage to Uxbal, who pays off the cops as much as he can. But he also turns a blind eye when his sales force begins working tourist-rich intersections that the cops have placed off-limits. More sales means more profit - but also more risk.
Meanwhile, he's also working with the sweatshop, run by Chinese bosses, that manufacture the counterfeit goods for his sales force. And he and his brother supply undocumented Chinese workers for construction sites around Barcelona as well. One of the illegal Chinese women even babysits for Uxbal's kids each afternoon.
But it's a hard-scrabble life, fraught with potential danger. The cops are always a threat - and, at one point, unleash a full-blown raid on Uxbal's African street vendors, chasing them through a toney Barcelona shopping district. The sweatshop is obviously an inhumane place to work - and the so-called construction workers don't have any actual skills at anything other than the most basic manual labor. And then there's the matter of housing all those illegal workers in a way that keeps them under the overboss' thumb.
Meanwhile, Uxbal has problems of his own. He's trying to be a good dad and is separated from his wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), whose bipolar problems are exacerbated by her drinking. She's fooling around with his brother - yet she wants to get back together with Uxbal to be with her kids. But she's too scattered to be responsible.
Which leaves it all to Uxbal, who is pulled in a half-dozen directions at the same time. And finally, undeniably, his body begins to give out on him. A trip to the doctor because of a growing pain produces a diagnosis of nameless killer and a death sentence: It might be prostate cancer, it might be kidney or bladder cancer - Inarritu doesn't specify. But it's killing Uxbal quickly and leaving him incontinent to boot.
Bardem, so chilly and frightening in his Oscar-winning performance in No Country for Old Men, is painfully human in this role. He's a man who loves his children and longs to do right by them. At the same time, he's trafficking in what amounts to the slave trade of illegal workers. The demands on him are almost superhuman and he's just one man, stumbling and failing more often than he succeeds, and suffering in the knowledge of just how short he is falling of the mark.
Bardem's eyes convey the anguish, the anger, the conflict that are at war in this man. There is great affection for his children, self-loathing at his role in the suffering of others, sorrow at the knowledge that his time for his children - already limited - has suddenly been proscribed even further by an illness that he can't afford to treat.
Movies too often focus on the extremes of our world - people at their best, people at their worst, people at obvious crisis points. Biutiful does something else, taking one man near the end of his life and showing the path he walks as he tries to get his affairs in order, despite an increasingly chaotic existence. It is as moving a character study as I've seen in a movie in years.