Several weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Biutiful, the new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Starring Javier Bardem and set in Barcelona, the movie centers on Bardem's protagonist, Uxbal, a crime boss in the city's immigrant ghetto El Raval. When Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal cancer and left with only weeks to get his affairs in order, he must reconcile the wildly juxtaposed parts of his life - his two children, crazy bipolar wife, party monster brother, African street hawkers, and his sweatshop with dozens of illegal Chinese immigrants - and finally find peace. The film was an Oscar favorite, both for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Actor (Bardem).
When compared to the sun-soaked and light-hearted cinematography of Vicki Cristina Barcelona, the grim textures, gritty plot lines, and spiritual themes of Biutiful show the city of Barcelona at its most terrifying. In the same city where tourists frolic along Las Ramblas, an underground economy of pickpockets, drug dealers, corrupt cops, under-the-table construction contracts, and illegal sweatshops thrives, with Uxbal at the center. For only having visited Barcelona briefly, I was shocked at how accurate the film was as to the pace of life and the culture of the neighborhoods it followed. The difference between the "international" Barcelona of tourists and that of the underclass has never been revealed more sharply. Not only was the chaotic urban landscape of Biutiful shot beautifully (biutifully?), but the film's plot was full of ethically ambiguous moments where Bardem's performance really came through. Is it better to leave your children with their bi-polar, unstable alcoholic mother than no mother at all? Are you doing a favor for illegal immigrants by giving them shelter and illegal work visas? At what moment do you just give up your struggle and finally reach out to your loved ones, even if it's too late?
I highly recommend this movie, so if you can't see it in theaters, wait for it on DVD!