Dying has become a beautiful thing for JAVIER BARDEM.

The Spanish actor’s role as a terminally ill hustler in BIUTIFUL has earned him an OSCAR nomination for BEST ACTOR while adding to his ever expanding resume of tortured characters.

Before his turn as the doomed Uxbal, he drew acclaim as an AIDS stricken Cuban expatriate in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS and as a quadriplegic yearning for death in THE SEA INSIDE.

The anguished roles helped establish JAVIER as one of the most formidable actors of his generation, but he admits the morbid track record has not always gone over well with loved ones.

“My mother doesn’t like that very much,” JAVIER said last September when he screened BIUTIFUL at THE TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL.

“She’s always asking, ‘Are you dying in this one?”’

The wisecrack is a welcome moment of levity as JAVIER discussed the unrelenting sorrow that pervades the Barcelona set film, a grim account of a cancer stricken criminal’s last days as he tries to secure a future for his two young children.

The street smart Uxbal makes his living by exploiting others. He peddles undocumented immigrants for cheap labour, squeezes illegal street vendors for cash and takes money from God fearing families who believe he can communicate with their dead loved ones.

A cancer diagnosis only drives Uxbal deeper into crime and worsens the miserable relationships he has with his mentally unstable ex wife Marambra and his self involved brother Tito.

Misery seems to follow him at every turn and an earnest effort to redeem himself backfires with horrific consequences.

“This is a story about an isolated man in a very difficult world,” said JAVIER, referring to the vision of writer/director ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU.

“Alejandro told me from the very beginning, this is not a drama, it’s a tragedy. This is a tragedy, like a Greek tragedy where gods are coming into the play in order to remind the human beings how weak they are, how much help they need and how…they have to learn by themselves.”

The dark material required an actor with the breadth to handle a complex character who swings from a fierce toughness to tender warmth while in steep decline, noted Mr. Inarritu.

The Mexican filmmaker said he wrote the role with JAVIER in mind, describing the former rugby player as a strong faced Minotaur with a “poet soul.”

“He has this strange nature very close to the character which is, he’s physically very strong but…I know how sensitive and delicate he is in the interior,” ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ INARRITU said in September.

BIUTIFUL is up for a BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM OSCAR, facing off against Canada’s war ravaged family saga INCENDIES and films from Greece, Algeria and Denmark.

Mr. Inarritu said that he used music as a reference in setting the mood for the film, where secondary story lines touch on class issues, immigration and the afterlife.

“I was trying to hear this as a requiem, musically,” the director remarked.

“And so the tone and the pulse of it was that — like an adagio, always very melancholic, profound.”

JAVIER BARDEM, who claimed a BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR OSCAR in 2008 for his role as a cold blooded killer in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, credited the script with giving him much to work with.

“If it’s well constructed then you have 50 per cent of a good performance, all ready, just doing the lines,” stated the actor, whose lighter roles include JULIA ROBERTS’ soulmate in EAT PRAY LOVE and a seductive playboy in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, in which he costarred with wife PENELOPE CRUZ.

“Then you have to add the other 50 per cent on your own. And that’s what I’m always trying to look for —something that has dimension, that you can play with.”

And contrary to conventional wisdom, delivering an honest portrayal meant keeping Uxbal’s misery at arm’s length.

“Getting lost (in the role) doesn’t help the creativity at all. It’s not about feeling what you’re doing — it’s about pretending that you’re feeling what you’re doing. Some days are harder than others, of course, but…it doesn’t help you to be a better actor to get lost.”

“Actually, it’s the opposite…Just be there, experience what you have to experience and leave some room on your brain to say that, ‘This is a fiction.’ Otherwise it’s too hard and it doesn’t make any sense.”

BIUTIFUL opens Friday in Toronto and Ottawa. It heads to Halifax and Calgary on FEBRUARY 18 and makes its debut in Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg and Edmonton on FEBRUARY 25.

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