Once you see his work, it’s pretty tough to forget Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He brought us ‘Amores Perros,’ ’21 Grams’ and ‘Babel.’ After his last two films, which were geared more toward American audiences, he returns to his native Spanish language for the Academy Award-nominated ‘Biutiful.’

Xubal (Bardem) is a single father who is involved in the criminal underworld of Barcelona. He acquires work for undocumented immigrants and always gets a cut for his trouble. He also cares for his two children without the help of his estranged and bipolar wife.

Their uncertain lives become even more complicated when Xubal discovers that he has terminal cancer and only months to live.

Will he be able to secure some kind of a stable life for his family for when he isn’t there any more? Will his wife clean up her act? What about all of the workers that are trying to make better lives for themselves and their families?

As with any tale involving terminal illness and a man on the wrong side of the law, trying to turn his life around, this is pretty emotional stuff. It doesn’t have a lot of the overly-glamorized looks at crime that some films contain. It’s a look at people doing whatever they can to get by. They aren’t necessarily proud of what they do, but it’s all that they know.

Whereas ‘Amores Perros’ and ‘Babel’ both contained three separate stories and an ensemble feel, there is no denying that this is Bardem’s show. He earned his award nominations for carrying this film. For much of the film, his struggle is to hide his illness from his children. At other points, it is the responsibility he feels for the lives of others. Maybe we don’t get to know him as well as we would like to, but there’s the feeling that no one gets too close to Xubal.

The story is fairly unique in that there aren’t any clear-cut villains. Most of the adult characters do something immoral at one point or another, but it is usually in the best interest of their families or someone close to them or due to some sickness. Things aren’t as black and white as many stories tend to be. Even those who perpetually do wrong can feel guilt and have their mistakes haunt them. There are one or two hallucination scenes in here that you will remember for quite a while.

If you want to nitpick, you could point out that the acts aren’t always very clearly defined and that the plot has such subtleties that outside of a few major incidents, not a lot happens. Rather than a completely linear plot (which it mostly is) certain aspects of the story come ‘full circle’ bringing us back to early scenes that initially seemed random or out of place. Those are classic characteristics of many foreign films and it comes down to personal preference.

Special features include: director’s notes, a look a the crew, interviews and a trailer.

Two and a half hours is a hefty time commitment, but like most great movies, ‘Biutiful’ doesn’t feel nearly that long.

Get ready to be emotionally invested in these characters because they are worth it.

 

Rated R        147 minutes          2011

When J.J. Ellis isn’t writing as the Allentown DVD Examiner, his Decent Exposure Radio can be heard on the air every Friday night from 10:30 to midnight (EST) on WXLV 90.3 FM or wxlvradio.com!

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