Javier Bardem plays a cancer-riddled gangster who talks to ghosts - a possibilty for best foreign language film at the Oscars

In Biutiful, the latest offering from Babel director Alejandro González Iñárritu, Javier Bardem takes on the role of Uxbal, a man struggling to accept his terminal illness whilst coping with a dysfunctional home life.

Separated from his alcoholic bipolar-suffering wife, Uxbal strives to raise his two young children whilst running the gauntlet as a hardened street criminal. He is a man of contradictions: working closely with the exploitative bosses of African and Chinese immigrants, Uxbal tries to help the lowliest workers, forming relationships with some.

He is a broken man, wretchedly searching for a way to survive in this dingy hellhole. Uxbal is also – in Iñárritu’s words – ‘spiritually sensitive’, meaning that he can communicate with the dead. He uses this ‘talent’ as a means of extracting money from grieving relatives. Uxbal is then diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given only months to live.

Written with Javier Bardem in mind, the part of Uxbal is the actor’s meatiest role to date and the first Spanish-language film from Iñárritu since Amores Perros. It required the former to undergo a physical transformation as his terminal illness takes hold. Bardem, the normally bullish picture of Mediterranean health looks grey, thin, and haggard.

Biutiful was filmed chronologically – an unusual luxury for actors – which Bardem says helped him enormously over the gruelling five-month long shoot. He has garnered praise for his work in this role, including winning Best Actor at Cannes 2010. It is an astonishing performance and fully deserving of the accolade. Bardem perfectly portrays the heartbreaking vulnerability of a dying man without slipping into cliché or over-sentimentality.

In her first film role, Maricel Alvarez plays Marambra, Uxbal’s troubled and unfaithful wife. Alvarez delivers a performance brimming with raw emotion, which is, at times, difficult to watch. The relationship between Uxbal and Marambra ties the film together. They are broken, bitter, volatile but still in love.

Sound bleak? Well, yes it is. There are a few moments of lightness – provided by Uxbal’s children – but this is a hard-hitting, serious piece of work. Biutiful is both a character study and a social commentary on the very modern question of immigration.

Focusing particularly on African street sellers and the Chinese workers feverishly sewing bags behind the scenes, Biutiful portrays the side of Barcelona (and indeed most European cities) people prefer to ignore.  This is a topic close to Iñárritu’s heart, being an immigrant himself.

At 147 minutes, Biutiful is a long film, and it could benefit from losing a few scenes. Whilst Uxbal’s ability to speak with the dead adds to the overall theme (and the question of what a man will do in his last days), it occasionally grates and feels out of place. There are two scenes in particular in which the action almost lapses into Japanese horror territory.

That said, the film is Iñárritu back to his best, and the story of Uxbal is engrossing and beautifully handled. It is the story of a man who realises that what truly matters in life are the relationships with those closest to him.

Biutiful runs at QFT Belfast January 28 to February 10.