Javier Bardem was convinced he would not go into the family business. The Spanish actor, whose soulful intensity is rightfully coveted by filmmakers, was born into a moviemaking clan: his grandparents and then mother, Pilar, were working actors, while his uncle, Juan Antonio was a writer and director whose politics made life difficult under the Franco regime. Born in 1969, Bardem had his first film role at the age of six, but nonetheless trained as a painter. That sense of reluctance has never entirely dissipated; it gives his bull-chested bulk a physical grace and the roiling depths of his emotion a tender regret. Bardem will inhabit a role, but he holds himself open to all who watch. He’s an incredibly inclusive actor.
His career could have gone wrong several times, starting with his early feature film performances for director Bigas Luna in 1990’s The Ages of Lulu and 1992’s Jamon Jamon (which co-starred Bardem’s future wife, Penelope Cruz). A former rugby player, Bardem could play the macho brute with forceful ease. It might have been a profitable niche, but he took care in choosing his roles. Still in Spanish, then in English, he began to work internationally. After Al Pacino, one of Bardem’s idols, saw him in Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel’s 2000 biopic of the gay and eventually exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, he left a message on Bardem’s answering machine extolling his work.
This century he’s made improbable roles into memorably defined interpretations. Anton Chigurh, his taciturn hitman with the haircut from Hell in the Coen’s 2007 No Country For Old Men has a spectral menace, while his take on a Bond Villain for Sam Mendes’ Skyfall in 2012 is obsessive but dismissive, a force of nature happiest in his own head. Even the archetypal Woody Allen leading man was remade by Bardem for 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He could probably do with steering clear of Sean Penn productions, but Bardem understands his great talent – after several intense roles he did 2010’s Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts because he wanted to exercise different acting muscles. When Javier Bardem’s on the screen everything – and everyone – bends towards him.
The Sea inside
In lesser hands, The Sea Inside could easily be nothing more than tear-jerking TV movie, where sympathy is wrung out of those watching without thought for contemplation or challenge. But the true life story of Ramon Sampredo, a Spanish quadriplegic who spent three decades campaigning for his right to die, is elevated by the visual artistry of director Alejandro Amenabar (The Others) and the casting of Javier Bardem, who as a man who cannot move becomes the fulcrum around which the film revolves. Every feature on Bardem’s face helps tell the story, whether a flicker of his eyes or flaring of the nostrils.
Ramon, a ship’s mechanic who broke his neck in a diving accident in his twenties, still has a fierce intellect and quiet conviction, which come into focus through his relationship with two women: Julia (Belen Rueda), the lawyer sympathetic to his cause for her own poignant reasons who takes his case to Spain’s courts, and Rosa (Lola Duenas), a factory worker who finds sustenance in his life and urges him to stay alive. Both women are in love with Ramon, and if a romantic triangle involving a quadriplegic sounds contrived, on the screen the depths of Bardem’s work provides plausibility.
Amenabar uses fantasy sequences to lift Ramon out of the insular world he inhabits, but I’m not sure it’s necessary for him to take flight in a quest to reach Julia. Movement is conveyed in strength of Bardem’s gaze, his voice supplies momentum. The moral arguments about Ramon’s right to do are never fully explored, but how can the film espouse a legitimate debate when an actor as good as Bardem is one side of it as Ramon? Asked why someone who seeks leave to die smiles so often, Ramon replies that when, “you depend entirely on others, you learn to cry with a smile.”
The Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was renowned for his multi-strand narratives, films such as Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, that converged on contemporary themes from contrasting viewpoints. When he bore down on a single, flawed protagonist with Biutiful, Inarritu turned to Javier Bardem to embody a man who can feel himself slipping from this world to whatever is beyond. Playing Uxbal, a small-time Basque fixer operating in a rapidly changing Barcelona, Bardem is mesmerising as a man running just to stand still. He is the centre that cannot hold, and there are moments here, strange but fleeting, that are full of unspoken wonder.
Uxbal is a middle-man for globalisation’s black market – he pays off the police on behalf of African street hawkers and keeps an eye on a basement full of illegal Chinese sweatshop workers making knockoffs of luxury brands. He works out of circumstance, not choice, but his unease turns to fear when he learns he is terminally ill. Uxbal has custody of his two children, but he tries to reunite with his mentally unbalanced wife, Marambra (the terrific Maricel Alvarez) to safeguard their upbringing. Stories about the terminally ill can be maudlin and becalmed, but Biutiful has a fierce momentum. “Remember me, please,” Uxbal begs his daughter, and you realise that he fears he hasn’t done enough to earn even a single memory.
There are oblique but connected scenes that booked the picture, and they show how a minor moment, when infused with knowledge and desire and belief, can subsequently resonate with meaning. Spiritual elements circulate through the film, as a counterpoint to the increasingly bleak corruption Uxbal wades through, but Biutiful never tries to make you believe in something. Instead it simply shows you what Uxbal believes in, and with his body wasting away and his hope wavering, Bardem makes those observation wrenching. It’s a remarkable performance.
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