You may shed tears of sadness more than once as the images wash over you, but there’s no denying the astonishing power of this intense film about death, life, living and dying. Featuring Javier Bardem in a moving role that has showered him with awards and an Oscar nomination, Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel and 21 Grams) explores the poignant space between this life and the next – a place where loss and regret live alongside the heightened sense of life’s potential.
Bardem is Uxbal, a street hustler with a heart of gold, a man involved in the graft of illegal immigrants and pirated luxury goods. Separated from (yet still in love with) his bi-polar wife Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), Uxbal has custody of their two children Ana and Mateo, and struggles to keep his life together, paying off crooked cops and haggling with Chinese people smugglers. He wears his concern for others heavily, perhaps because of his other more difficult gift: he can see and talk to the recent dead – a heavy burden that brings him into constant contact with tragedy. As the story progresses, Inarritu (who also wrote the screenplay) loads Uxbal’s soul with sorrows and sets him on a journey through the physical and spiritual edges of life. It’s a lyrical and emotional experience carried by Bardem’s charismatic & restrained performance and some exquisite cinematography from Inarruti’s long time director of photography Rodrigo Prieto.
Death is never far away from any scene in this film – indeed the dead increasingly invade Uxbal’s life. But Inarritu’s complex and beautiful vision of what lies beyond is neither terrifying annihilation nor stereotypical visions of heaven and hell. Uxbal’s hell is actually experienced in life when he visits his brother Tito (Eduard Fernandez) in a pumping grinding nightclub full of grotesque strippers. What Uxbal’s discovers about death on this cinematic journey – though sad – is supremely and touchingly redemptive.
The film has been criticized for both its length (148 minutes) and its heavily poetic sensibility, yet the languid magical realism of Inarritu’s visual style, combined with the simple and haunting guitar score from Gustavo Santaolalla result in an extraordinary work of genius worth every minute.