DVD Release Date: May 31, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: December 29, 2010 (limited)
Rating:  R (for disturbing images, language, some sexual content, nudity and drug use)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  147 min.
Director:  Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu
Actors:  Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Haana Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernandez, Cheikh Ndiaye, Diaryatou Daff, Cheng Tai Shen, Luo Jin

Hollywood may have embraced Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, but the director is showing no signs that he's been co-opted by the glitz and glamour of American studio filmmaking. The director's first film, Amores Perros (2001), was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. His next film, 21 Grams (2004), brought him out of the foreign-film "ghetto," netting Oscar nominations for Naomi Watts (Best Actress) and Benicio Del Toro (Best Supporting Actor). His next film, Babel, received the full embrace of the American film industry. Not only did it star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but it landed seven Oscar nominations, winning one for Best Original Score. It seemed that Gonzales Innaritu was ready to "go mainstream."

But he hasn't.

Biutiful, his new film starring Javier Bardem—an Oscar winner himself for 2007's No Country for Old Men—is a dark film about mortality and the struggle to exist in a harsh world. The film is also Gonzales Innaritu's first major film for which he wrote the screenplay. That marks a break from his collaboration on the aforementioned earlier films, which were penned by Guillermo Arriaga.

Biutiful shakes free of Arriaga's tendency to write disparate scenarios that turn into interlocking stories—something that viewers had begun to associate with Gonzales Innaritu in much the same way they associate twist endings with the work of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan. The film is also more dour and hopeless, even as it struggles to affirm life in some sense. Uxbal (Bardem) is an angel to the underclass in Barcelona. He navigates a world of foreign laborers, exploitative business owners and police officers who are willing to look the other way if paid enough. As he fights to keep the laborers employed and out of trouble, he faces crises on the home front. His health problems have sent him to the doctor, which leads to a terminal diagnosis and causes him to worry about the future of his two children (Haana Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella). Their estranged mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), has abused alcohol and drugs but says she's been clean and sober for several months. However, Uxbal can't bring himself to trust her after the betrayals that led to their separation, and to his assuming custody of their offspring.

Uxbal also profits from an ability to communicate with the dead. At funerals, he enters a room with the bodies of three young children. He waits. Suddenly one of the deceased children is sitting in a chair. "Why can't you leave?" Uxbal asks the spirit. "What is keeping you here?"

We don't hear an answer, but outside the room, one of the children's parents, knowing of Uxbal's "gift," asks what Uxbal learned. "I was able to help him on his way," Uxbal says, giving the grieving parent the solace he sought. The father hands Uxbal payment for his services. The same transaction takes place later with another grieving man.

Is Uxbal's ability to communicate with the dead real? The filmmaking leads us to believe that it is. We don't know how he acquired the ability to see dead people, nor do we hear the spirits speak to Uxbal. When he communicates a message to those left behind, we don't know if he's inventing the responses he passes on, especially with the desperate survivors waving money. But whether or not his ability to communicate with dead people is real as portrayed in the film, it's unsettling to watch. Scripture condemns the turning to such people for information or comfort (Leviticus 19:31).

Somber and downbeat, Biutiful is oppressive at times, but also extremely well-performed and directed. It casts light on struggling workers who try to survive day to day—a large group of people who are rarely the focus of films.

However, Biutiful is confused in its depiction of religion and the afterlife. Salvation is hinted at apart from any acknowledgement of sin, repentance or faith beyond the outward trappings of church rituals. While the film accepts the fundamental idea that the soul exists apart from the body, its focus on spiritism and psychic phenomena mitigates whatever truths the story reveals about human nature and our need for spiritual comfort.