It seems we’re in an interesting phase where seasoned directors are using their platforms to reflect back on their pasts. Alfonso Cuarón did it with “Roma”. Last year, Kenneth Branagh did it with “Belfast”. Already this year, James Gray has done it with “Armageddon Time” and Spielberg with “The Fabelmans”. With “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths”, two-time Oscar winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu takes his shot, but not in any conventional sense.
Iñárritu has made a movie that demands we get into his headspace. If you can’t, odds are you’ll probably struggle with his latest film. For that reason I can see general audiences bowing out before the halfway mark. But for those who can get in sync with it, “Bardo” has a lot to offer. Of the above mentioned movies, it’s most like “Roma”, with its deeply intimate self-reflection and its cutting observations of the Mexican homeland. But what sets it apart are Iñárritu’s Fellini-like flourishes which can come across as pretentious and indulgent. But that actually plays directly into what the filmmaker is after.
With “Bardo”, Iñárritu gives us what can best be described as a narcissistic exercise in self-deconstruction. The film is undeniably self-regarding as Iñárritu makes himself a centerpiece. But there’s more going on here than some vainglorious self-promotion. Iñárritu takes a scalpel to his image and his success; his hubris and his insecurities, dissecting them the best way he knows how – cinematically. Yes, it’s a narcissistic work. But what better way for an auteur to probe and scrutinize the path they’ve traveled and the person they’ve become?
As with “Roma”, Mexico itself is an ever-present interest as Iñárritu seeks to reconnect with his homeland through his lead character and alter ego, Silverio (a magnetic Daniel Giménez Cacho). With the help of cinematographer Darius Khondji and Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero, Iñárritu envisions Mexico in a number of ways both real and surreal. It could be a scene of people collapsing at a crowded Mexico City intersection as Silverio helplessly looks on. Or an unsettling shot of him climbing a mountain of dead bodies in order to speak to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés who awaits at the top. There’s no shortage of alluring imagery.
Iñárritu’s story (which he co-wrote with Nicolás Giacobone) is just as immersive and incisive as the visuals. Its fractured free-flowing structure can be disorientating, and some segments make little sense on their own. But they’re individually compelling (a testament to Iñárritu’s vision) and hold our attention until everything is braided together in an emotionally satisfying final 15 minutes. In a way it does resemble a memory play, except here the people and places we see are dug out of Silverio’s unreliable memory and displayed through dreamlike recreations in his mind. Some feel painfully real while others have a Dali-like surreality. Some are deadly serious while others are utterly preposterous.
Silverio Gama is an acclaimed Mexican-born journalist and documentarian who left his home country for Los Angeles 15 years ago. Now he’s been named the recipient of a major award from the American Society of Journalists. Needing to prepare an acceptance speech, Silverio and his family travel to Mexico where he hopes to reconnect with his birth nation. But rather than find inspiration, he finds himself caught in an existential web. Soon he’s wrestling with everything from his own identity and mortality to his perception of Mexico itself, past and present. And as we’re thrust deeper inside of Silverio’s head, we’re quickly reminded that memories can’t be trusted. They tend to change as we change and are often shaped by emotion rather than truth.
Regardless of how bonkers some scenes get, there’s always a deeper emotional tenor. For example, one of the earliest scenes takes place in a hospital operating room where Silverio’s wife Lucía (Griselda Sicilian) gives birth to their first child. I won’t spoil it, but something so utterly absurd happens that you can’t help but laugh. Yet the sheer weight of the moment has an effect that resurfaces many times throughout the story. It’s one of several instances of black comedy being fused with consequential drama.
“Bardo” can also be glaringly pretentious and self-indulgent, and Iñárritu is 100% aware of it. He’s constantly poking fun at himself and his movie. In one moment of glorious meta subversion, a character sharply critiques the very film we’re watching, relaying every real-life criticism that has been and will be hurled its way. Iñárritu’s self-awareness also shows in more biting scenes. Such as Silverio being chided for his haughtiness and hypocrisy by his wife, his son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano), and his daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid).
I don’t throw out the tag ‘labor of love’ often, but with “Bardo” it fits. In addition to directing, editing, co-writing, and co-producing, Iñárritu clearly sees some of himself in his lead character. In fact, with Cacho’s unruly hair, dark sunglasses and similar build, there are times you’ll swear you’re seeing Iñárritu on the screen. And you can sense the filmmaker’s touch in the searing self-critiques and the playful jabs; in the expressions of heartfelt joy and heart-crushing loss. It’s all conveyed through this near undefinable sensory experience and technical marvel. It’ll challenge you, but the ultimate payoff is worth the effort. “Bardo” is now streaming on Netflix.
One for the cineastes (of which I am not) I think, joe blogs here is thinking I’ll manage without it.
If I were to be honest, I would guess you probably wouldn’t be too high on this one. Could be wrong though.
No, you’re not 🤣
Yeah, I’m seeing this. Maybe before the year ends or early next year depending on the time and energy as I’m now focusing on my final Blind Spot films for the year as well as re-watching The Kingdom to then watch The Kingdom: Exodus by Mein Fuhrer Lars von Trier.
I’ve watched it twice and even started it a third time. I completely understand why it has received some backlash, but I love it. I had the chance to see it on the big screen and that only made it better.