Any actor with as expansive a range and as accomplished a filmography as Javier Bardem deserves a three film collection of some of his most memorable cinematic creations, and that is just what Lionsgate delivers in their new release profiling the great Spanish actor. This new collection includes three good albeit heavy films featuring Bardem, including his Oscar nominated turn in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s misery-porn, Biutiful, the Oscar winner, No Country for Old Men, and finally the humanistic Mondays in the Sun. There is barely a smile to be found throughout each of these three films.
No Country for Old Men is a film which needs very little introduction or analysis. The winner of four Oscars in 2007, including Bardem’s sole acting win (for Best Supporting Actor) No Country has already carved out a place for itself as one of the most memorable films from the 2000’s. From a script littered with colorful, regional jargon and scenes of bombastic violence, to the beautifully designed lighting arrangements and stark cinematography which define the film’s visuals, No Country is a film that richly succeeds as a genre exercise and remains congruent with the Brother’s cannon.
However, this being the Coen Brothers, working off of material by Cormac McCarthy (a national treasure to be sure) No Country for Old Men also carries a moral urgency and thematic power that imbues the action of the story with both a sense of present day topicality and historical relevance. No Country is about the violence central to the American experience, that is, it ellucidates our nation’s baptism through blood and reliance upon violence to settle disputes, particularly in the geographical location of the American West.
Embodying these themes completely is Bardem’s Anton Chigurgh, a character who is certainly befuddling. Is he a real person? Is he simply an allegorical manifestation of the unstoppable patterns of violence permeating the American West? Or is it simply the story of man ready to wreak havoc on the world because he is the owner of the world’s worst haircut?
No Country for Old Men doesn’t entirely answer this question, but this is partially why the film is so richly rewarding. The film benefits enormously from the Coen Brothers immaculate direction, sparse scripting and brilliant harnessing of actors and cinematic artisans. It delivers a film that works both as a gritty thriller about drug violence as well as our country’s inability to move behind a chaotic, vicious history, or to stop “…what’s coming,” in the years to ahead.
The second film, Biutiful, in the collection gained accolades for Bardem and also is notable for being Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s first film where he also shouldered screenwriting duties. In Biutiful, Bardem is Uxbal, a critically-ill man attempting to navigate both the seedy underbelly of Barcelona while somehow still providing financial and emotional stability for his children.
Biutiful falls squarely in the genre of misery-porn, an artistic sensibility that would include films like Lee Daniels’ Precious, the work of Harmony Korine, and also Inarritu’s own cannon of Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel. Biutiful recounts not only the gloomy adversity of Uxbal existence, where he struggles to provide for children who have essentially lost their mother due to her bi-polar disorder, but also the plight of Barcelona’s immigrant population (who Uxbal is heavily involved with) who are continually exploited throughout the story.
The film thoroughly revels in its gritty portrayal of lives lived on the edge, and contains a thematic canvas that is certainly ambitious yet ultimately portentious in nature. The presence of morality in the face of the world’s harsh realities seems to be the film’s driving force, in addition to an exploration of the fragility of the human experience. However, it all becomes rather overbearing, with Inarritu’s characteristically frantic style of jarring, hand-held camera-work, and relentless focus on scene after scene of human suffering drowning out any sort of coherent message.
This is not to say that Biutiful is without power. The film contains several harrowing sequences, such as when a group of African illegal immigrant (who Uxbal organizes) are beaten by the police, or when Uxbal and his estranged wife Marambra attempt to reconcile. In his strongest and most shattering performance to date, Bardem’s performance holds the entire film together and imbues the film with a sense of truth which cuts through Inarritu’s barrage of cinematic despondency. Bardem simply lives and breathes this character. He is enormously layered, projecting a sadness and frustration with his circumstances, but also a great, selfless love and concern for the fate of his children once he passes on. He almost single-handedly gives the film with its vitality, its heart, and its coherence, showcasing a desperate man trying to hold onto what is essential, what is biutiful.
The final entry of the collection is the Spanish film, Mondays in the Sun, which chronicles the debilitating effects of unemployment on former shipyard workers living off the Spanish coast. In Sun, Bardem plays Santa, a burly, bearded, and proud man who is the unofficial leader of the unemployed men. The rest of the characters includes the colorful likes of Lino, played by José Ángel Egido, a craggy, aging man who doggedly pursues new work that he is unqualified for, Amador (played by Celso Bugallo) an alcoholic who repeatedly states that the return of his wife is imminent, and also the benevolent barman Rico, played by Joaquín Climent.
Director and screenwriter Fernando León de Aranoa film is strongly character driven, and structured almost like a series of vignettes than an actual cohesive story. This is not a negative thing, however, the film is also not all that original. The appeal of the whole enterprise comes down primarily to how engaging the audience finds the characters. In this regard, the performances by the main cast members, in addition to Fernando León de Aranoa’s careful characterization, allows Mondays in the Sun to succeed as both a elegant character study and wide-reaching examination of the economic conditions faced by Spain’s working poor.
As Santa, Bardem is characteristically impressive. Hidden behind a robust beard, clothed in boxy sweaters, Santa is a proud man enraged at circumstances that are far beyond his ability to influence. And it is how this anger manifests itself through small acts of destruction (Santa is on trial for breaking a city light during a protest at the beginning of the film) that illustrates the character’s heartbreaking situation of existing in a society with little opportunity. It is this attention to character which makes Mondays in the Sun rewarding, even if in a narrative sense the film has serious pacing problems and is rather unremarkable.
The films which constitute the Javier Bardem 3-Film Collection are all highly watchable and complimentary to each other thematically. However, probably the films’ greatest unifying factor are the inimitable performances by Bardem found in each one of the titles. From the unstoppable bloodlust of Chigurgh, to the gruff humanity of Uxbal and Santa, the collection showcases the actor’s seemingly boundless range and unique ability to project a nuanced, unshowy intensity. His performances in these films are precise, gritty and ultimately profound, showing us the small, interior-lives of real flesh-and-blood individuals, while simultaneously highlighitng the larger sociological and economical experiences that permeate all.