Saturday, 29 January 2011
This is a gritty and demanding movie. It charts the long dark night of the soul for Uxbal whose world slides inexorably into despair, disappointment and death whilst he is seeking respite, renewal and redemption. Always on the threshold of making it big but never quite pulling it off, Uxbal staggers from mishap to catastrophe as he attempts to bring up his daughter and son single-handedly in the dismal and bleak back streets of one of Barcelona's least desirable neighbourhoods.
In this journey, Uxbal, is a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile fatherhood, love, spirituality, crime, guilt and mortality amidst the dangerous underworld of modern Barcelona. He is a psychic sought out by recently bereaved locals who helps the souls of the dead to journey from their body to their final resting place. Yet he struggles to prepare himself for the same journey once diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer that already has secondaries.
His estranged wife Marambra suffers with bipolar manic depression, earns a living giving 'massage', enjoys too much wine and unknown to Uxbal is sleeping with his brother Tito. Tito runs a club which allows full satisfaction of any need for drugs or sex and which towards the end of the film serves as the vehicle for Uxbal to have one last blast before his impending death. The trajectory of the film is clear from the outset - Uxbal will not find escape from the inevitability of his circumstances. As the film progresses - sometimes painfully slowly (it could do with losing 30 minutes) - the spectre of Uxbal's eventual demise looms ever larger over the unfolding plot.
Add to this Uxbal's role as go-between gang-master for a group of illegal African street hawkers and a group of illegal Chinese sweat shop workers and the seedy back-street world of the Barcelona that never features in the glossy travelogues is revealed in all its depressing forlornness. Things turn from bad to worse when the hawkers start dealing on the side to augment their meagre income and are busted by the Police and deported. Feeling sorry for the sweat-shop Chinese shivering in their basement hovel, Uxbal buys gas heaters for them and they end up gassed as they sleep one night.
This all sounds pretty bleak. It is. This is most definitely not a feel good film. It is nevertheless a wonderful and powerful study of the human spirit and the struggle to make good in the face of adversity. Throughout, Uxbal operates to the highest transcendent moral and ethical standards within his world both showing and earning respect among the community.
Uxbal's remorse for the deported Africans and dead Chinese is tangible. His inability to make a fresh start with his wife and give his children the domestic security he craves for them is frustrated by Marambra's illness. His impending failure to be there for his children weighs increasingly heavily on his heart. The film is set in the capital of Catalunya - a macho culture. Add to this the underworld dynamic, evidence of Uxbal's drug addiction past and the wailing and hysterical Marambra and you might conclude this movie's story is too dark and beyond redemption. You would be wrong.
The film's salvation comes from the strength of the performances - particularly the actors who play the lead family. Bardem has already won the 'Best Actor Award' at Cannes for this role and was nominated for a Golden Globe and is nominated for both a BAFTA and an Oscar. I'd say that on the basis of the evidence, he is a strong contender. Uxbal's devotion to his children and his desire to give them opportunities to make a life of their own is the redemptive power that drives the narrative. As he helps them with their homework, it it the transliterated spelling of the English word 'beautiful' that gives the film its title.
I'm not in a hurry to see this film again - it is a 147minute journey into a hellish existence - but I'm glad I did. I know I rave about my local Picture House Cinema (Harbour Lights) but a visit to London yesterday gave me the opportunity to visit the 'Ritzy' in Brixton - another in the chain. It was a great experience - a full food menu on offer, four screens, two bars and an upstairs lounge offering live music, comedy and readings. A really great and thriving centre of cultural engagement. I'll be back.
I'll give this film 7/10 and encourage those with a strong constitution to go and see it.