Seeing through the gloom

Alejandro González Iñárritu follows up Babel with Biutiful

Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Although a grubby, emotionally fraught realism prevails through most of its 148-minute running time, Biutiful begins and ends with an ethereal sort of dream vision. There’s gloom aplenty in the several stories that unfold therein, but the mystical poetry and serenity evoked in those dream visions cast a quiet, haunting spell over all that transpires.

Uxbal (Javier Bardem), the semi-heroic central figure in this multicharacter slice-of-life drama, is part agent and part victim of the miseries the film surveys. A single dad raising two pre-adolescent kids, he works both as a sepulchral sort of psychic and as a well-meaning middleman between assorted illegal immigrants and the sweatshop operators who hire them. And as we learn early on, he is also dying of cancer.

The setting is contemporary Barcelona, and this man is battling his way through a kind of slow-motion melodrama, a series of calamities large and small, personal and social, for which half-solutions are the best that anyone can hope for. Bardem’s great, somber dignity in this beleaguered role becomes something like a sustaining force of nature as the story’s events unfold.

Uxbar’s ex-wife Marambra (slinky Maricel Álvarez), a masseuse with bipolar disorder, wants to reunite with her kids, but she’s also cavorting with Uxbal’s brother, the similarly unreliable Tito (Eduard Fernández). Two big-hearted illegals, Chinese Liwei (Luo Jin) and Senegalese Ige (Diaryatou Daff), serve intermittently as substitute mother figures to Uxbal’s kids, doting daughter Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and troubled son Mateo (Guillermo Estrella).

A corrupt cop, the sweatshop boss and his lover, and the ghost of Uxbar’s father all have significant moments as well. Under the circumstances, it’s a surprisingly heartening gallery of mixed and troubled souls.