Biutiful; R, 147 minutes; Vinegar Hill Theatre

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If you didnt already know, the point of titling this movie Biutiful is to be poignantly ironic. This foreign-language Oscar nominee, the most promising work yet from poverty-porn aficionado director Alejandro González Iñárritu, tries really hard to make the city of Barcelona seem ugly and uninviting. But the tone that Iñárritu and co-writers Armando Bo and Nicolás Giacobone set is unsentimental enough to become perversely romantic. Such exquisite squalor, such living misery!

Javier Bardem (pictured) was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in the latest movie from Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful, in which a dying man tries to reconcile his work (he’s a criminal) with his home life (he’s also a dad).

What puts this film a step beyond the bludgeoning bathos of Iñárritu’s Babel is a towering, Oscar-nominated lead performance from Javier Bardem—full of contradictions but entirely at ease with itself and therefore the film’s truest hope of genuine humanity. One comes away strangely thrilled to think that even a two-hour film of Bardem reading the phone book might be worth watching, and maybe also that Iñárritu, if he really wanted to prove himself, should have made that film instead.

Bardem was last seen on Woody Allen’s clock, living out a very different vision of the place in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Biutiful feels like a seething rebuke to that golden tourist-land fantasy of diversionary pleasure. The point is taken like a knife jab. Here, as a midlevel player in the city’s underworld, a beleaguered negotiator with his two young kids’ unstable mother (Maricel Álvarez), and a dead-people-seeing psychic who happens also to be dying and to have unfinished business with his own dead father, Bardem has no respite from life’s grimmest realities—and perhaps just a tad too much material to work with. His clarity of presence should be instructive to us all. And especially to his director.

Giving off street wisdom, cynicism, a conscience, and a coming to terms with mortality, without ever seeming to try, Bardem sets an example too often unheeded by the rest of the movie, which always is seeming to try. Just as we bristle at being cued to expect that his exploitative dealings with dope-peddling illegal Senegalese immigrants and Chinese sweatshop overlords will not go well, they go even worse than expected. Should we be grateful for such undaunted commitment to swerving away from subtlety? Should we endorse the alleged humanism of a film that insists on the impossibility of actual justice in order to indulge its own dalliance with half-obscure gestures of poetic justice?

Iñárritu, also of Amores Perros and 21 Grams, certainly knows his medium. Until it gets exhausting, his cinematic surety can be exhilarating. He likes to work up Big Ideas and come at them from several angles at once—often with mercilessly belaboring results. There’s some of that self-congratulatory showmanship here, but the real thrill to be had from Biutiful is its own reluctant discovery: All the power it could ever need exists already in the limitless potential of one great actor’s great face.

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