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With Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, Alejandro Goñzález Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga forged a collaborative filmmaking partnership that generated stories grounded in a triptych structure that deconstructed time and narrative form into piercing slivers of emotional diamonds. For their efforts, the duo earned a trio of Academy Award nominations for Babel and a host of accolades for the rest of their stirringly downbeat oeuvre. Whether set in Third World slums, manned desert borders or other global bullseyes, the former DJ/commercial director remixed the landscape with perfect pitch and a phenomenal sense of the multiple competing rhythms playing in any given moment.

Working for the first time from his own screenplay (and one that abandons the triptych schematic), Iñárritu explores yet another Third World ghetto and the lost souls seeking redemption in these hells on Earth. But he’s not making the journey alone. His muse and fellow wanderer for this project, Javier Bardem has that beautifully expressive face with those huge sad eyes and a world full of weariness etched in every crack and crevice. That’s the visage of a golden god, and one that has also won critical acclaim: He follows up his No Country For Old Men Best Supporting Actor Oscar with a leading man nod for his work here.

But as mythic figures go, Uxtal (Bardem) is a fallen hero seeking redemption during the darkest of times.

From just a fleeting first glance at this world, one would not be wrong to suspect that the gods had packed their things and made a last-ditch effort to escape the approaching (and inevitable) Armageddon just over the horizon. Uxtal has been touched by the gods, blessed and cursed in equal measure with the ability to commune with the dead, to engage with souls on the other side and pass messages back to the living. He uses his power sparingly, to provide comfort, but nothing is free, and during these dire, dark days, Uxtal exacts a fee for his services to help make ends meet. His other means of support involve illegal sales and trafficking of products and immigrants for labor.

While that might not be the typical hero’s way, Biutiful is not based in a classic old-world reality. This is a post-New World, post-New Age fever dream where Catholic sensibilities are at odds with a global explosion of sins. With ethical and moral compromises in every exchange, Uxtal struggles to adhere to a personal code that honors and respects his tainted gift. He is further burdened with news of his impending death (an incurable cancer that renders him doubled over and pissing blood) and concerns for his two young children. What will become of them and his hodgepodge illegal-immigrant family of workers once he passes on? What will become of the world when its last tragic demigod lays down his arms?

Uxtal’s death march is a long, depressing road, hopeless if truth be told, but audiences will find themselves drawn into companionship with this remarkable figure thanks to an otherworldly performance from Bardem who, along with Daniel Day-Lewis, has become the new standard for judging motion-picture acting. These two are DeNiro and Pacino in their prime and deserve even more respect for the fact that they refuse to debase their talents in trivial, paycheck roles. Bardem works more consistently (and did shimmy his way through Eat, Pray, Love), but he never resorts to broad stereotypes. He uses every ounce of his physical being, the nuances of the script and the silent beats (like Miles Davis) to inhabit a character and a moment onscreen as if nothing but that life matters.

Iñárritu weaves sight and sound and every other sense (and possibly a few we haven’t quite been able to define) into a teeming mix that recalls the big bang that started the whole crazy mess we call life. Biutiful reboots the journey of the living by starting at the end, the only point from which we might be able to understand what it means to be human. Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)