Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is, as many artists like to imagine themselves, a disheveled-genius type. Once an independent journalist in his hometown of Mexico City, he now lives in Los Angeles—where he transitioned into an award-winning career as a documentarian—with his wife and two American-born children.
We aren’t in L.A. long before Silverio, begrudgingly accepting a career achievement-esque award, returns to the Mexican industry he left behind. Mexico is still his home away from L.A., but the choice to live and work stateside has cursed him to a lifetime of abandonment accusations, inner turmoil, and purported American exceptionalism, all of which (and more!) are explored ad nauseum over 174 minutes.
Any new entry in the unofficial 8½ franchise must debut on Italian soil or forfeit Fellini influence, and that’s a Venice Film Festival law. Writer-director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) is so obviously a new entry that you only need ears to know it (if you speak Spanish). Although, if you watch, you’ll notice the glaring parallels immediately—down to Silverio’s blazer, black glasses, narrative-shifting cinematic dreams, sloppy juggling of daily business, and identical look to his creator.
Silverio’s return is—like every narrative beat for Silverio—a parallel of Iñárritu’s. Bardo marks the first of his films to be made entirely in Mexico since his 2000 debut Amores Perros. And it feels like a return. Despite the constant avalanche of narrative trickery, there are no technical or stylistic surprises to the filmmaker’s autobiographical dream epic. It’s more like a career retrospective of his most alluring tricks.
Like Birdman, Bardo glides through a dream logic that renders detailed plot summary almost useless. From the opening sequences it’s the kind of movie that always leaves you guessing as to what’s real. One-on-one conversations are interrupted by war reenactments. A baby is born but requests to go back in the womb because “the world is too fucked up.” They push him back in. There are huge heads on tiny bodies, nipples made of egg yolk, apartments full of sand, buses full of water, and—perhaps most unbelievable of all—a powerful white man persuaded to change his mind about foreign relations after some historical recontextualizing.
Iñárritu’s love for metatext is also on full display. Where Birdman was self-referential, Bardo is just plain self-commentary, like Iñárritu’s Q2 self review for his office job. At one point an old journalist friend-turned-nemesis (whose voice eventually disappears from the soundscape once he starts tearing Silverio a new one) starts critiquing the opening scenes of Bardo like it was one of Silverio’s films, shitting on the very concept of exalted self-assessment in the form of grandiose cinematic achievement. No doubt some will write the same words in their reviews of Bardo, something Iñárritu certainly expects.
Darius Khondji’s impeccable cinematography is grounded in extremely wide lenses, as Iñárritu is wont to use, that stretch out the screen. These are so stretched—think A Hidden Life—that they warp the edges of the frame and create a pervasive sense of surrealism even in the most realistic moments. Shots are long and well-choreographed, the camera tilting and panning around loosely as if refusing to be fixed on a tripod. Aesthetically it’s very similar to Emmanuel Lubezki’s natural cinematography on Birdman and The Revenant—even more so The Tree of Life, where wide-lense cameras float around like spirits that exist to capture as much beauty as possible in a single frame. It’s gorgeous.
With near-fish-eye lenses, the camera’s field of view is massive, which means Khondji, Iñárritu, and production designer Eugenio Caballero had the insane task in dressing, lighting, and designing all that space for every shot. Coupled with the fact that the camera is always moving around, the level of production in all departments that had to support the complexity of camera movement is unparalleled. So many non-master-shots play like master shots because of the way the lens opens up the frame and picks up light from all corners. That, plus the distortion, feed heavily into the fantastical tone and thematic throughline.
What it’s about is an essay unto itself: the long, ugly history of Mexican-American relations; nationalism versus healthy hometown appreciation; immigration, colorism, self-reflection, colonialism, oppression, imposter syndrome; raising children with a sense of identity; the contrast between the “pasteurized reality” of the money-driven US and the stark reality of a more dangerous but less sugar-coated life in Mexico; reality versus memory versus imagination; an artist’s obligation to their home; et al. Even Iñárritu’s lifetime obsession with music gets some stage time.
The score ends up being the most easily praisable aspect of the film, and for which Iñárritu gets some credit. As if he didn’t have his hands full enough writing, producing, and directing, he co-edited and co-scored the film, the latter with Bryce Dessner of The National. This slapdash, horn-laden score often plays like an entrance for a court jester, a triumphant theme for the most confident of dunces (an angle Iñárritu takes on himself regularly in the movie). It’s abrasive, off-beat, brassy, reminiscent of both Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and #35” and Curb Your Enthusiasm’s theme-as-punchline. But the joke isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s our filmmaker’s sense of self-deprecation, and the music draws it out with a terrific sense of humor.
When it’s all said and done—the technical marvels elucidated, the stylistic flare appreciated, the wide-eyed self-reflection given a fair shake in retaliation to the all-too-easy critique of self-indulgence—I can’t help but wince a little at the thought of a second watch. If it’ll be great to revisit certain sequences, the thought of stomaching all three hours again so soon is grueling. In time, sure. But in the aftermath Bardo feels like an open wound that should’ve been sutured shut (read: edited). Then again, what do we expect from a doctor performing surgery on himself?
By nature of the operation, his perspective is limited. Yet it’s a bold—if not foolish—pursuit. In attempting to stare himself in the face with honest, decent intentions (an assumption many will not afford him), Iñárritu is letting the whole world in on the most stinging critiques he’s received or leveraged at himself. And to take it one step further, he’s swallowing most of those critiques and accepting who he is without trying to make himself out as good or bad; rather, someone who exists in the complexity of life and is trying to process it through art like the rest of us.
Bardo feeling way too long doesn’t come from it being a vanity project or an ignorant bout of self-indulgence but a preference for lingering—perhaps long enough to call loitering—few are likely to share. It’s one thing to ruminate on the ruins of human history, another to walk around in them uneventfully for an obnoxiously long amount of time because it seemed cooler when you wrote it. How can time move so slow when so much is happening? And (usually) in such a spectacular manner?
Iñárritu’s autobiography opens with an image of a man running through a shrub-littered desert until he leaps into the atmosphere and flies out of sight, only to come back down and do it again. Though we never actually see the man—just his shadow. Why? Because we’re seeing through Iñárritu’s eyes, and he can only examine his ghost: Bardo, the boisterously beautiful and flawed shadow of its creator.
Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) premiered at the Venice Film Festival before arriving in U.S. theaters on November 18 and Netflix on December 16.