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Oscar-Nominee Javier Bardem Wrestles With Slow Death in 'Biutiful'

  • Alan Silverman

Javier Bardem in a scene from "Biutiful"

The Academy Award nominations, announced January 25, include a Best Actor nod for Spanish actor (and previous Oscar-winner) Javier Bardem in a drama that is among the contenders for Best Foreign Language Film. Alan Silverman spoke with the star and writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu for this look at Biutiful.

"For Ana's birthday, perhaps we can take a trip..…"

There's much more to the opening scene of a Barcelona family than first meets the eye. As the mom happily talks about planning a trip to the Pyrenees so the children can see snow for the first time, the look in the dad's eyes reveals that he knows he will not live long enough to be with them on that journey. Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, is dying of cancer and in the little time he has left, wants desperately to reconcile his love for his family with his life spent on the wrong side of the law.

"I like the things that he represents: the struggle and the trying of a human being, under the worst circumstances, to become a better person," explains Bardem. "That's what I think he represents, beyond how he acts or is forced to act in certain ways."

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Moving through the shadowy alleys of underworld Barcelona, Uxbal truly believes he hurts no one as he exploits illegal immigrants - (Chinese laborers in sweatshops turning out designer knockoffs sold on the street by undocumented African refugees); and he is a spiritual man who believes he can speak with the recently departed, but charges their relatives to deliver their final messages. Above all, he dearly loves his two young children.

To Bardem, Uxbal's story is a classic tragedy.

Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"
Javier Bardem in "Biutiful"

"The Greek tragedies are those where human beings are forced to struggle with the worst circumstances thrown in by the gods," notes Bardem. "So the gods are making 'wake-up calls' to them saying you have to overcome them in order to find the grace. This is a tragedy and the god is death. As in any Greek tragedy, the end is very rewarding for the human being because, no matter what you achieved, it is about how you made the journey …bringing yourself to a point where you have to surrender to life and realize what is important and what is not. What is the most important of all is compassion and empathy and love and care, which is represented in the movie by those two kids."

Writer-director Alejandro González Iñárritu believes in the redemptive quality of tragedy - a genre he has been drawn to from his first film, Amores Perros in 2000, through 21 Grams, Babel and now Biutiful.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu on the set of the movie
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu on the set of the movie

"From Medea to King Lear to Macbeth, I think tragedy is a genre has been forgotten in the film industry in a way. In this case, he is not a king; he is an ordinary man," notes Iñárritu. "As all these tragic heroes, all control that he thinks he has is lost and destiny will hit him in every angle. The exercise of this genre is about having somebody falling down in free fall and how this character with integrity will find a way to redeem himself and light himself while he is going in the darkest hole possible. That's the game. That's the roller coaster. That's what this is about."

The Mexican-born filmmaker explains Biutful gets its misspelled title from the Spanish phonetic spelling for the English word that Uxbal uses to describe the better world he wants for his children. Iñárritu also understands that he is asking audiences to navigate difficult emotional terrain.

"This is not an obvious, easy piece of entertainment," says Iñárritu. "This is much more than that. I think the film, hopefully, is incredibly entertaining - at least for me it is - and I have the rule to entertain people, to tell them a good story in the best way possible and to engage them; but I think entertainment should do and give more than that. I think the film has a cathartic experience for some people and I [think] as an artist you can't get better than that. That's what it's about for me."

Scene from "Biutiful"
Scene from "Biutiful"

From the death sentence pronounced by his failing health to the truly tragic consequences of his life choices, Uxbal's journey is through very dark places before there is a glimmer of light; but star Javier Bardem does not call it a dark story.

"Depending on what you feel 'dark' is. Life is dark; news broadcasts are darker than this movie," says Bardem. "This movie brings the best of a human spirit to the screen, which is realizing the importance of passion and forgiveness and empathy to the other as a way to make this world keep turning around. When we lose that, we are gone. So I think that's not dark, actually. I think that's very bright."

"Look in my eyes. Look at my face. Remember me, please. Don't forget me, Ana. Don't forget me, my love, please."

Uxbal begs his daughter, Ana, to remember him and remember his love -- a poignant moment from Oscar-nominated Biutiful, which was shot on location in Barcelona with an international cast including: Argentine performer Maricel Alvarez, Senegal-born actor Diaryatou Daff and Chinese screen veteran Chen Tai Shen.