The picture Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu paints of Barcelona in his new film Biutiful is anything but. Iñárritu’s is a dystopian landscape of dank, filthy streets, chaos, and darkness that seems to trap the characters inside a snow globe of despair.

Biutiful is a vision of a society that has broken down into layers of corruption, whose murk and misery can recall future-shock yarns like Blade Runner. Exploitation is rampant: a pair of Chinese factory owners keep their laborers virtually enslaved in a basement room where they sleep, eat, and raise their children, unlocking the door each morning so they can work. Equally exploited are the Senegalese immigrants living in overcrowded apartments who sell the sweatshop’s counterfeit purses on the streets of Barcelona. They’re always on the lookout for the police, who beat them with impunity. Biutiful unfolds in a place so grim it’s hard to believe it’s real, except that, in many regards, it is. Iñárritu (Babel, 21 Grams, Amores Perros) imagines the world from an intense, hyper-vivid vantage that sets your pulse racing and your anxiety level soaring. You feel trapped, like Uxbal (the inspired, revelatory Javier Bardem), in the hopelessness of this place.

Uxbal and his morally suspect brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) are a pair of half-baked hoods who profit from Barcelona’s black market, taking money from Chinese sweatshop owners and Senegalese street vendors to pay off the city’s corrupt police officers. The work is clearly an emotional hardship for Uxbal, who feels deeply for the plight of the immigrants he sees exploited and abused, especially the young Chinese mother Liwei (Luo Jin). Liwei has a small child and routinely looks after Uxbal’s 10-year-old daughter and her little brother.

But that’s not all that Uxbal has to bear. He is also able to communicate with the dead (those not up for heartache-heaped-upon-heartache may find all of this a bit much) and helps the recently departed move from one realm into another. When they are “stuck” between these worlds, Uxbal can see their bodies floating on the ceiling, trapped in the material world he still occupies. And Uxbal is also raising his two young children nearly single-handedly, without help from his unbalanced, promiscuous, irresponsible wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). When Uxbal finds out that he is also dying of prostate cancer, an already dire and unpredictable world becomes even more so. Like the dead people he helps navigate the afterlife, Uxbal must contemplate his own transition from the world of the living to the world of the dead, and it is as difficult and fraught as anything he has witnessed as a medium.

Part of the difficulty of Uxbal’s passage from the living to the dead — besides the extreme vulnerability of his children — is his lack of a support system. Estrangement looms large over Biutiful, where even Uxbal’s family relationships are strained and unsatisfying. His brother is secretly involved with Marambra, and the recent death of their father only highlights how little connection they have to the man.

As seen through Iñárritu’s eyes, the charming, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona is a hellhole, a Gomorrah. In one scene, after learning that his actions have caused great injury to other people, Uxbal meets Tito at a strip club where humanity is depicted at its most monstrous. Tito wallows in the sea of flesh and drunkenness, and the dancers have been transformed into surreal, gyrating animals sprouting breasts all over their bodies. It’s like something out of one of Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical horror shows — del Toro serves as a producer on Biutiful. It’s also a scene that almost topples the film from hyper-realism into the patently absurd; it seems determined to make the point, in far too literal terms, that the world is a freak show of intertwined greed and depravity.

Iñárritu, as both Babel and 21 Grams have demonstrated, can be tremendously overwrought, stacking the deck so much against Uxbal that viewers may wonder what exactly Iñárritu is trying to prove. Is there really no hope at all? But Biutiful‘s key insight into contemporary life rings true: Even the “civilized,” developed, human rights-enlightened First World can be a toxic trap for the destitute and the vulnerable. They live under a yoke of constant work and little progress that makes Dickens look like a spinner of fairy tales.

Biutiful is Iñárritu’s break-away picture from collaborator/writer Guillermo Arriaga, who worked with Iñárritu on the three aforementioned films. This outing was instead written with Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone. But in many ways the film seems in line with Iñárritu’s preoccupation with people existentially — or literally — suffering even within a world of plenty.

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