Go on, men, admit it!  There’s a part of you that would prefer to be free from practically all entanglements.  You don’t get up early every day and dress up and go to work for “The Man.”  You don’t have to put up with somebody in your household who tries to tell you what to do.  You love your kids, of course, and want to see them regularly, but you aren’t into baby-sitting, tending toward the irascible when faced with the everyday grind of actually raising them.  You don’t really want to pay taxes, either, and the way you manage is that is that all your business transactions are cash, under the table. Yeah, there may be a few shady deals in there, but hey, you’re just trying to make a living here.  Yes, the modern-day urban rebel without a cause.  Oh, and you hate going to doctors, too, for fear they’ll tell you don’t want to hear.
            Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, the harried street hustler whose time is running out on him.  He finally relents and seeks medical advice when the pain becomes so unbearable he needs something really strong to endure it.  Of course, there’s a reason he’s in so much agony: he has terminal cancer, and it’s already spread, and because it’s gone untreated for so long, the prognosis is fatal.  The thing that grieves him is not so much the prospect of the sudden end of his days, but the fact that he has two little children, a daughter (about ten) and a son (about seven), and unfortunately their mother, Marambra (Maricel Alvarez), is a mess.  She’s bipolar, and doesn’t like to take her medicine, because she feels she doesn’t need it any more. And yet she has lost custody of her children, because she has too often abandoned them while preoccupied elsewhere.  She makes some money as a “massage therapist” (and the quotation marks are intentional), one of her most regular customers being Uxbal’s brother, Tito (Eduard Fernandez), a profligate and a sleazeball, who is happy to help lead her down the path of promiscuity and dissipation.
            Uxbal makes his own money by taking his cut dealing with illegal immigrants.  There’s a Chinese sweatshop clothing factory, where the hapless workers are shuffled off to a concrete-floored storeroom at night to cram into sleeping quarters without even any heat, and Uxbal employs one of the women to watch his kids after school until he can pick them up.  There are street merchants from Senegal, selling their wares on carpet mats on the sidewalk, dodging the police, and Uxbal takes a cut from them, also, and in turn bribes a policeman to leave them alone, but that turns out to be crooked money invested unwisely:  the corrupt cop takes the cash, and the raid happens, anyway.  Uxbal feels sorry for a young Sengalese mother with a nursing child whose husband was hauled off to prison, and offers his own apartment to her while he tries to move back in with his ex-wife, at her insistent pleadings that “she’s better now,” but Uxbal doesn’t tell anyone about his deteriorating health condition.  His daughter, the sensitive one, soon realizes there’s something wrong.  And she’s as worried about her future as a reasonable child would be.
            Meanwhile, Uxbal starts thinking more and more about his father, who also died young, when Uxbal was still a child, and Uxbal tries to tell his children what little he remembers about him.  Uxbal claims he has a gift, that he can listen to the recently-dead and convey messages to their grieving loved ones from “the other world,” but some suspect him of being an unconscionable charlatan, preying upon the freshly-grieving, and we wonder about that, also, but somehow we believe that in his own mind, at least, Uxbal is sincere.  And we start to develop a grudging affection for him because in his own way, on his own terms, he is trying as hard as he can.  But he knows it’s just not enough.  And so do we.
            Javier Bardem is hauntingly genuine in this role.  This Spanish film is glacially-paced, in places, for impatient American audiences, but Oscar-nominated (“ Babel ”) Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has again introduced us to desperate underworlds beyond our awareness, and we are richer for it.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas