What can I say? I was part of a subdued screening audience who quietly exited the theater after Javier Bardem gave us a harrowing workout. Bardem is a fine dramatic actor: "The Sea Inside," "No Country for Old Men," "Live Flesh" and "Before Night Falls" come to mind, although he isn't above a little froth now and then ("Eat Pray Love" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona").

In this Spanish drama (English captions), he is custodial parent to two elementary school-age children, living a marginal existence in Barcelona; he scrapes up jobs for illegal immigrants, both Chinese and Senegalese. His former wife is bipolar, so she isn't much help when he discovers he is very, very ill.

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu ("Babel," "21 Grams" and "Amores Perros") uses a hand-held camera more than I like: the chase scenes are almost unwatchable. On the other hand, he captures realistic moments, e.g., the little boy kicking the table leg as he eats; the capable take- charge actions of the Senegalese woman with the "anchor baby"; the conditions at the graveyard as it's prepared for demolition.

As one catastrophe after another piled up on our hero, I despaired for him. As one illegal Chinese immigrant after another struggled for survival, I realized how desperate their lives must be. As one cacophonous nightclub scene after another assailed my senses, I covered my ears and wanted them to end. As one fantastical image flitted after another, I reminded myself the movie was from Spain and there ARE cultural differences.

This is a masterful job by a fine actor in his prime, but do NOT go expecting a light-hearted romp!