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Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3 out of 5

JAVIER Bardem provides yet another immense performance at the heart of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Biutiful but still cannot prevent the film from falling victim to its flaws.

Downbeat to the point of despair, Inarritu’s latest is actually notable for the absence of his usual screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, even though it continues to operate on a really ambitious level.

Inarritu ditches the multi-narrative approach of the likes of Babel and 21 Grams and reverts back to Spanish language, but asks a little too much of viewers in the narrative stakes and, in particular, its sombre tone.

The film follows the fortunes of a character named Uxbal (Bardem), a terminally ill drug dealer and father who also acts as an employment agent for illegal immigrants in a rough part of Barcelona.

Struggling to get his affairs in order before death prematurely claims him, Uxbal juggles his small-time criminal enterprises with his responsibilities as a father of two and feelings for his alcoholic estranged wife (Garcia). He also has the ability to communicate with the dead.

As ever with Bardem, the actor delivers a multi faceted performance that gets right to the heart of Uxbal’s torment and heartache. It truly is a warts and all performance that was rightly recognised with the joint best actor prize at Cannes (and now an Oscar nomination). But he alone cannot rescue the film from the burden of its problems.

For that, Inarritu must shoulder most of the blame. First off, the tone is just so unrelentingly bleak as Inarritu piles on the misery for just about every character, thereby transmitting the feel bad element to the audience.

He also struggles to make Uxbal a totally sympathetic character, even though both Bardem and Inarritu would have us believe that he is. Some of his actions are morally and ethically dubious, albeit coming from a place of ‘need’ and trying to do the right thing.

Several of the film’s mystical elements, however, would have us believe that he is almost saintly, in spite of the suspicion that some of his woes could be avoided (and we don’t want to divulge too many crucial plot details at this point).

Inarritu also throws a little too much at the screen, with a sub-plot involving immigrants (and one closet homosexual in particular) appearing unnecessary for the dramatic flow. Rather, their woes are just another burden for audiences to character in a film that already asks a lot from them.

That said, Inarritu deserves credit for shining a light on a troubled part of Barcelona and for examining issues that offer no easy answers in a suitably intelligent fashion.

Fans of Bardem, meanwhile, will enjoy another immense performance from him, which really is the one compelling reason for seeing the film. Just don’t expect to feel upbeat afterwards.

In Spanish, with subtitles

Certificate: 15
Running time: 147mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: May 16, 2011