Laughs are thin on the ground in Biutiful, the latest attempt by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu to alert audiences to the torment and degradation of life. It's the sort of picture that sends you rushing home to the light-hearted comforts of Lou Reed's Berlin. But there's a glint of humour in the exchange between the film's shabby hero and his doctor. Uxbal (Javier Bardem) has just been told that he has prostate cancer. With treatment, the doctor says, his quality of life could be maintained for several months. And you think: quality of life? What quality of life?
This, after all, is a man who has shared a dank apartment in Barcelona with his young son and daughter since he split from their mother, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez), a bipolar prostitute. He oversees clandestine employment for some of the city's illegal immigrants, from Senegalese street traders to the Chinese sweatshop workers who spend 16 hours a day knocking out handbags before kipping on the factory floor. He also makes extra cash relaying goodbye messages from the freshly deceased to their grieving families. The film doesn't cast aspersions on these powers; Uxbal is shown to be a decent man, even if Marambra, no parenting expert, either, does have to remind him not to take their little boy along to funerals - the open caskets are distressing him.
The good news amid the gloom is that Biutiful is Iñárritu's least pompous work since his 2000 debut, Amores perros. This new modesty coincides with the departure of his regular screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, after a public spat over the latter's efforts to hog sole credit for their collaborations. And with Arriaga has gone the pretentious structural game-playing of 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). Instead, Biutiful travels in a straight line, with most scenes in chronological order - and feels stronger for it.
One of this film's most admirable qualities is its commitment to the unglamorous claustrophobia of poverty. Rodriego Prieto's camera stays in close as Uxbal prowls cluttered apartments that would scarcely pass muster as cupboards. The set designers Marina Pozanco and Sylvia Steinbrecht have placed clashing colours and test-card patterns wherever we look; there is a different form of torture-by-wallpaper on each surface in Marambra's flat, while bright washing hangs in the home of a Senegalese immigrant, like the flags of forgotten countries.
Put an actor as hulking as Bardem in this setting and he can only look caged. The combination of that heavy face, the noble, sloping brow and the shaggy mane makes him look positively equine in profile. Impossible to say whether his Oscar nomination will yield an award, but only a fool wouldn't bet on him if he were running in the 3.20 at Newmarket.
Bardem has any number of scenes in Biutiful that might have been "Oscar moments", those individual spots that advertise actorly intensity - frantically carrying a dead woman in his arms, or railing against a callous employer, or surveying the embalmed corpse of his long-dead father. The beauty of his style is that nothing he does becomes a showcase; his passion doesn't draw attention to itself. His is a majestic performance with which, ultimately, the film cannot compete. There is a danger in the script that everything that happens around Uxbal comes to seem like a symptom of his malaise. When an uncontainable tragedy occurs late in the movie, it loses some of its horror by dint of being just another item on Uxbal's shopping list of woes, along with an unpredictable ex and discoloured urine.
And yet the first two thirds of Biutiful are as persuasive an example of Iñárritu's skill as anything he has shot to date. One brilliant sequence, in which the street hawkers are busted in a police raid, shows him to be an impressive director of spectacle who doesn't need to resort to the vocabulary of the post-Bourne action film. The sequence is shot and edited lucidly, maintaining the pace while keeping tabs on a dozen characters simultaneously. Looking on is a street entertainer daubed in gold paint and dressed as an angel. Her feathered wings are spread out, but her expression is only moderately curious. She must have spent so long on earth that she's lost any trace of the celestial.