Review: Biutiful (15)*****

There is a shattering moment of unbelievable sorrow at the heart of this very human drama in which Javier Bardem tries valiantly to keep life and soul together as he juggles the needs of his children, estranged wife, wastrel brother, long-dead father and various friends on the fringes of society.

Uxbal (Bardem) is the harried father and low-grade criminal who tip-toes along the boundaries of the law. He is in cahoots with African immigrants who sell knock-off goods on the streets of Barcelona. He assists Chinese friends who run a sweat shop packed with illegal immigrants.

But Uxbal discovers he is dying, a burden he keeps from those around him. An added burden is his gift: he can commune with the recently deceased...

Another multi-layered drama from Alejandro Gonzalez Irittu, Biutiful (the title comes from a word misspelled by Uxbal's son) traces one man's sad odyssey – a journey toward revelation and illumination that begins with a chance meeting in a snowy forest between Uxbal and a younger man.

Irittu feels no need to immediately explain this unusual moment. Instead he scatters clues throughout a plot that is as densely threaded as any of his previous offerings.

It is too easy to cast Uxbal as some sort of angel. Yet he has within him an urge to help those less fortunate than himself. Possessed of dignity and wisdom, he nevertheless finds himself questioning his role in the world and, as his body starts to fail, the limited future he faces. Bardem, so mournful and afflicted with a mighty conscience, gives a towering performance as a man with a foot in this world and the next, a doting father and desperate husband edging ever nearer to the afterlife. Weighed down with a gift that makes him an outsider to grieving families, he attempts to make sense of something that appears to have been endowed by God.

This highly unusual premise is played out not in verdant meadows or sun-kissed beaches but on the grey, concrete side streets of an urban wasteland. Biutiful is a cyclical story of impending doom. It's also about an extraordinarily ordinary man striving to do the right thing, making mistakes, and seeking absolution and redemption.