A heartbreakingly direct performance by Javier Bardem anchors Biutiful, a film from Mexican auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams).
Uxbal (Bardem) is not an admirable man: he's a criminal middleman, helping human traffickers and illicit street peddlers in Barcelona. But in the thick of his corrupt and compromised world, Uxbal strives to do some modest good: he demands heaters for the cold basement where illegal Chinese laborers sleep and he carefully scrapes together money for his children, whom he deeply adores.
On top of all this, Uxbal can commune with the recently dead, and tries to pass on reassurance to the bereaved.
When Uxbal himself is diagnosed with severe cancer, he desperately tries to leave behind something better for his children.
This plot summary paints a bleak picture, and there's no question this is--much like Iñárritu's other films, including Amores Perros--an emotionally harrowing experience.
But Biutiful is also visually rich and deeply humane, and holds moments of grace that can only be found in sadness and loss.
The entire cast brings a fullness of life to all of the characters, no matter how briefly they appear, but Bardem almost never leaves the screen and carries the movie with magnetic force.