In Javier's face all the stories of humanity could be told,” muses director Alejandro González Iñárritu, as a baggy-eyed Bardem limbers up for his next emotionally wrenching close-up.
The painstaking rehearsals in the meaty 20-minute Making Of confirm what this achingly melancholy and moving melodrama (and that Oscar nod) suggest.
It’s Bardem’s eye-catchingly tough and tender turn as terminally ill, seedily saintly Barcelona grifter Uxbal that elevates the ghetto grit and ponderous redemption themes of Iñárritu’s latest fun-fest.
The misery-maestro’s lyrical shooting style make guilt and grief seep like cigarette smoke through Uxbal’s increasingly desperate attempts to do the right thing by his kids, an estranged bipolar wife and the illegal street vendors he supervises.
But this grim downward trajectory, however perceptive, feels the lack of those twisty, ingenious plot collisions with which ex-collaborator screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga enlivened Amores Perros and Babel.
A chaotic police raid gives a welcome but solitary jolt to the slow-burn story, but Iñárritu over-eggs the film with moody magic realism, saddling Uxbal with a sideline in psychic corpse-whispering that’s merely supernatural garnish.
Yet a handful of riveting performances, from Maricel Maricel Álvarez’s volatile wife to Eduard Fernández’s shifty, partying brother, show Iñárritu’s unparalleled skill with actors.
Watching him coax wistful scenes from the child performers (“Each take is like micro-surgery”) reveals a director just as much in his element as the sublimely saddening Bardem is in his.