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Javier Bardem is extraordinary in Biutiful
Dad, crook, spirit medium

Uxbal is stern but affectionate with his kids.
Uxbal is stern but affectionate with his kids.
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I've always been fond of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the glibly murderous gay couple who drift in and out of the old James Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever. They're part of the cinema's grand tradition of malevolent homosexuals. Okay, troubling and offensive tradition, but I still like Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd.

Now we can add to the list Liwei (Luo Jin) and Hai (Cheng Tai Shen), who manage a squalid crime operation in the death-obsessed drama Biutiful. They are gay lovers. I'm not going to complain too loudly about yet more Mean Movie Gays - because, first of all, their romance seems genuinely tender (up to a point) and incidental to their lawlessness, and also because Biutiful is such a grand, moving film that I'm not inclined to quibble too much over a cliché.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), Biutiful features an extraordinary, Oscar-nominated performance by Javier Bardem as Uxbal, a Barcelona man who is a loving father and a hapless crook. And a spirit medium. Who is dying.

In collaboration with Liwei and Hai, Uxbal runs an operation, largely staffed by illegal immigrants, that sells counterfeit consumer products. The lovers oversee Chinese sweatshop workers who make purses and are locked up at night. Uxbal distributes the knockoffs to African men, who sell them on the street. Uxbal also pays off the cops, who bust the peddlers anyway.

At home, Uxbal is stern but affectionate with his children, a girl of about 10 and a boy of about 5. Uxbal is separated from their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez, striking and desperate), who is bipolar. She is an inattentive, at moments vengeful mom. In one of many searing scenes, she takes the daughter on vacation and leaves the boy at home, alone. Uxbal arrives at what he thinks is an empty apartment and is mortified to find the sleeping child. In a delirious touch, the boy is illuminated by the light-therapy lamp that Marambra credits for her good mental health.

There's an intuitive quality to the storytelling, and I won't try to describe all the plot elements. Generally speaking, they serve the film's grand theme: immigration, which is also, arguably, the grand theme of these troubled times.

Like the thugs who control them, the film's Asian and African immigrants are at odds with the law. But that's mainly by virtue of their illegal immigration status, and their chief crime seems to be wanting better lives. (An important leitmotif centers on Uxbal's grandfather, who fled Franco's repressive Spain.) Uxbal tries to help his charges with small favors - a bribe here, some space heaters there - but these efforts keep backfiring catastrophically.

Immigration is such a difficult issue, and Biutiful doesn't offer any easy answers. Good art seldom does. You might look for hope in Uxbal's miraculous psychic powers, which a friend tells him are his gift to the world. But whenever he channels dead people, all he seems to get is bad news.

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