Rated 4.0

This foreign-language Oscar nominee, the most promising work yet from poverty-porn aficionado Alejandro González Iñárritu, tries awfully hard to make the city of Barcelona seem ugly and uninviting. But the tone so carefully established by Iñárritu and co-writers Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone is just archly unsentimental enough to become perversely romanticizing. What makes this an advance beyond the contrivance and bludgeoning bathos of Iñárritu’s Babel is a towering lead performance from Javier Bardem, full of contradictions but entirely at ease with itself and therefore the film’s truest hope of genuine humanity. As a midlevel player in the city’s underworld, beleaguered negotiator with his two young kids’ unstable mother (Maricel Álvarez) and dead-people-seeing psychic who happens also to be dying, Bardem has perhaps a tad too much material to work with here; his clarity of presence should be instructive to his director.