This is an unbelievably difficult film to watch. Javier Bardem’s leading role, as a father of two who is dying of cancer, is extraordinarily nuanced. It’s a shame that Colin Firth has the Best Actor Oscar sewn up. For me, Bardem’s performance here is the best of the last year. But it’s not in English and stands no chance, for that reason alone.
It is all about catharsis and redemption. The approach tackles dying in a very different way from “Hereafter”. Yet it grips you for every one of its 148 minutes and only lets you go about an hour after it has finished. It will haunt you, if you are brave enough to see it. I was not the only person watching this who cried.
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s compelling tale drifts to magical realism a few times, but the whole is stronger for these strange moments. Uxbal (Bardem) has custody of his two children. Knowing he does not have long to live, he puts a great deal of effort into tying up loose ends.
His estranged wife, played by Maricel Alvarez, has issues which become clear during the movie. The families here are fractured and poor. Several of the sub plots require concentration as they deal with complexities in illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigration.
Eduard Fernandez, Ana Wagener and Diaryatou Daff give their distinctive characters great flair. The child actors are remarkable. There isn’t a bad performance or a duff script moment.
Frankly, even beautiful music cannot disguise the fact that it’s harrowing. Some of Inarritu’s touches grate – why is there a fashion to spell words incorrectly? The “Happyness” and “Basterds” titles are as irritating as “Biutiful”. I know this is done to highlight the persona of Uxbal, but it is not needed.
This Barcelona is not the pretty postcard place, but a seedy tangle of illegal deals, drug dealing, gangs and strip clubs. There is so much that is poetic in the sea and bird scenes and in much of the detail. The shades of “Sixth Sense” moments, when Uxbal sees dead people, are very good and genuinely frightening.
But it’s the moments he spends with his dead father that stick in your head, long after the credits have rolled. Gustavo Santaolalla has written lyrical music that matches each mood beautifully and adds to the dreamy sense.
This is a distinctively Catalan film and wears its sorrows and feelings openly. Admittedly, there are times when this strays into self pity, but these are only brief moments. It is Inarrituru’s greatest achievement to date.
From start to finish, Bardem owns this movie and he deserves every accolade and award he has won – plus Oscar.
The Stratford Picturehouse audience had mixed reactions. I am very glad I saw it.