If you can bear the sadness, Biutiful is a bittersweet gem. This tale, from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, is relatively straightforward -- that is to say, linear and meditative, rather than frantic. It depicts a few weeks or so in the messy life of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a struggling father of two young children who lives and works in the grungier side of Barcelona. Primarily, he works as a middleman between Chinese counterfeiters and African street merchants, but he has a side business communicating with the dead. (The film suggests he has a gift, but it may be another hustle.)
When we meet Uxbal, he's received a terminal cancer diagnosis, and much of the film follows his attempts to prepare for his death. Initially, the quest is simply amassing more money, but his mortality forces Uxbal to confront who he has become -- not a bad man, but a man off track -- and increasingly, he seeks to find peace with himself.
Despite its few flourishes with dreams and visions, Biutiful (its title is a mangling of "beautiful") is clear-eyed and unsentimental about death and Uxbal's failings. It doesn't offer any easy conclusions, except some light amid the muck.
In Spanish, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Feb. 4. Manor