3/5 Biutiful has been nominated for two Oscars—”Best Foreign Language Film” and Javier Bardem for “Best Actor in a Leading Role”—and yet, you’ve never heard of it. Spanish director Alejandro González Iñárritu, responsible for Babel and 21 Grams previously, has teamed up with a new writing duo to produce and direct this melancholy, dramatic picture revolving around the dismal deneoument of one man’s life.

What happens when a ghost-whisperer is handed a death sentence? Meet Uxbal (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men)—father, brother, husband, illicit-businessman, psychic-medium—whose life expectancy has been hacked to nothing by a devastating diagnosis. Terminally ill, with only a month to put affairs in order, he must rush to secure an immediate future for his children while dealing with his unhinged ex-wife whose renewed insistence on motherhood aggravates him to no end. As the sand in his hourglass dwindles, life affords him no reprieve and further intensifies his anguish.

The story of Uxbal’s untimely demise opens with two disconnected and enigmatic conversations, but quickly shifts to a more linear plot. In signature style, director Alejandro González Iñárritu has built an emotionally draining narrative around a miserable protagonist, resulting in another downer-of-a-drama. Like his previous work, certain scenes, motifs, and plot-specifics reveal glimpses of Iñárritu’s potential, but the remaining runtime is lacking in both dramatic and aesthetic appeal: important emotional sequences are depicted heavy-handedly, the cinematography is more distracting than artistic, and several intriguing side-stories are completely neglected; all that considered, the film’s one irreparable flaw is the flat and forced finale.

Removed from the muck of mediocrity, however, is Javier Bardem who delivers an impressive performance as the story’s hero, Uxbal. He embodies every emotional manifestation of his character—indifferent, angry, shocked, forlorn, panicked, worried, relieved, etc.—with such prowess, it makes one wonder why his previous roles have been so one-dimensional—think Vicky Cristina Barcelona and No Country for Old Men. Surrounding Bardem is a supporting cast of Spanish and international unknowns who do an exceptional job, well, supporting; most notably Maricel Álvarez, who plays Marambra his wife in the movie, rides the fine line between sympathy and disgust, drawing both pity and chagrin from the viewing audience.

Iñárritu returns to familiar territory in his latest project, but spices it up with a touch of the surreal. The story itself feels more pointed and cogent than his previous material, thanks in no small part to his new writers, but the great triumph of this film is its strong performances and the central message of the story. To put it another way, he paints an interesting subject with exciting vision, but he ought to refine his brush-strokes. Biutiful is a movie with potential both promised and achieved—promised in Iñárritu and achieved in Bardem.

Alejandro González Iñárritu