Those concerned that a 2 1/2 hour movie titled "Biutiful" might bear some of the attributes typically characterized as "pretentious" will not be reassured by the opening, whispered dialogue, with the camera trained only on two sets of intertwined hands, and the subsequent scene in which an unknown figure informs that when owls die, "they spit hairballs out of their beaks."
You know it's weighty stuff, indeed, when we're talking about owl hairballs.
Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has always driven headlong into gritty depictions of pain and tragedy. With handheld camera and a brooding artist's mandate, he revels in peering into the depths and brandishing his seriousness.
Following the visceral triptychs "Amores Perros," "21 Grams" and the much Oscar-nominated "Babel," "Biutiful" is Inarritu's fourth feature but his first without his former screenwriting partner Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he fell out.
For the first time, Inarritu tells the story linearly, but he has kept the interweaving multiculturalism, focusing on the poor side of Barcelona. And he is trained on one character: Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a kind of black-market middle man for a Chinese sweatshop and Senegalese street vendors.
Uxbal learns that he's fatally ill and soon to die, a predicament made all the more awkward because of his two young children, Ana (Hanaa Bouchaib) and Mateo (Guillermo Estrella). (The movie's title comes from his son's misspelling in a drawing.) Their mother, Uxbal's ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez), is manic depressive and untrustworthy.
A mystic friend tells Uxbal to get his affairs in order, and much of "Biutiful" is Uxbal badly attempting to ready himself and those around him for his exit.
Bardem, with a mane of hair and a heavy weariness, carries the film entirely. He messily tries to balance morality with money and his children's welfare with that of the immigrants he's exploiting.
Usually, his better intentions backfire. He forgives his ex-wife and, seeing a possible caretaker for the children, and cautiously allows her back into the family _ a futile prospect.
He likewise attempts to buy heaters for the basement where the Chinese workers sleep on the floor, but that small gesture, too, turns to tragedy.
There's a great helplessness to "Biutiful," an impossible struggle to be decent, to leave the world improved.
In talking about the film, Inarritu has invoked Kurosawa's "Ikiru" ("To Live"), one of the more inspirational and glorious films about life and death. The Mexican director (who wrote the film with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone) similarly binds his existentialism with ethics, but doesn't come anywhere near Kurosawa's hard wisdom.
Inarritu is as visually talented as any filmmaker working today, and "Biutiful" (which was shot by Rodrigo Prieto) is relentlessly detailed. But it's also leaden and contrived, particularly in its halfhearted stabs at mystical flourishes that feel out of place. (In several scenes, Uxbal communicates with the dead.)
A film about death is really in itself a worthy undertaking, but Inarritu tries to juggle fatherhood, divorce, business ethics and ghosts. It's mountains to heap on an actor, and truly remarkable that Bardem manages it so beautifully.
"Biutiful," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use. Running time: 148 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G _ General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG _ Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 _ Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R _ Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 _ No one under 17 admitted.