This review originally ran September 1, 2022, for the film’s world premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Although seemingly fragmented in its structure, as dreams often play out in our subconscious, “Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” the new fable from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu premiering at the 2022 Venice Film Festival, reveals itself a circular narrative where the surreptitiously personal and the vehemently political become entangled to seismic effect.
Throughout the film’s warranted nearly-three-hour runtime, Iñárritu writes the cinematic verses of an oneiric love poem to an ever-incongruous homeland while simultaneously investigating his own perceived hubris, insecurities and fractured identity. On the other side of everything with which he grapples rests a transcendent masterpiece lucidly woven from honest contradictions, painful self-awareness, and hard-hitting historical observations.
Much like “Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s own artistic pilgrimage back to his estranged origins, Iñárritu’s “Bardo” is an attempt at making sense of a place and a people that no longer exist as the creator remembers them, or that perhaps he never fully knew, but whose essence remains unchanged. The two magnum opuses share the worldbuilding expertise of Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), a magician dexterous at turning places long frozen in the directors’ unreliable memory tangible once more for the screen.
What distinguishes Iñárritu’s ambitiously introspective outing — not only from his friend’s work but also from the recent wave of projects by other master auteurs pondering their past with a mix of nostalgia and discerning acumen — are the bold strokes of imagination with which he and cinematographer Darius Khondji translate reality into dreamlike scenarios.
The culmination of the defining fascinations of Iñárritu’s oeuvre, “Bardo” maximizes the grounded existentialism of “21 Grams,” the multi-prism perspective of “Babel,” the sardonic anxieties of “Birdman,” the large-scale set pieces of “The Revenant,” the issue-driven curiosity of “Biutiful” and his virtual reality creation “Carne y Arena,” to unite them in the metropolis of his filmic birth, Mexico City, where “Amores Perros” was set and shot.
That amalgamation of his far-flung interests yields a Mexican film through and through in that it engages with the preoccupations of the director’s compatriots, those back home and the ones who migrated north, and dissects the blurred understanding of their image of him, as someone who “escaped” or “abandoned” the country for the United States decades ago and thus is seen as not privy to the realities of what it means to live in Mexico today.
And yet, as vastly unfunny as that description might read, “Bardo” is still very much a comedy that pokes fun at its obvious self-importance and at the self-aggrandizing absurdity of any creative pursuit when juxtaposed with the great afflictions that plague the world. In turn, its carnivalesque score, born from Iñárritu’s own background as an audiophile in collaboration with The National’s Bryce Dessner, matches the sophisticatedly droll tone.
For this parade of ideas, Iñárritu cast Daniel Giménez Cacho as Silverio, a celebrated journalist and documentarian about to receive a prize in the U.S., who decides to visit his native Mexico to reconnect with those who knew him before he took on the world stage.
In “Bardo,” Giménez Cacho sports the same hair style and body type as the director, and he does it so convincingly that, for those aware of Iñárritu’s appearance, they become almost indistinguishable. Known for roles in Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama,” Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education,” and a slew of Mexican titles since the 1990s, the acclaimed actor brilliantly transforms into Iñárritu’s ideal alter ego to navigate a realm of increasingly kaleidoscopic vignettes. In this roller coaster of a performance, Giménez Cacho exudes prickly charisma.
True to how unconscious visions operate, Iñárritu doesn’t cast younger actors to play Silverio in passages that recall the earlier stages of his life, but instead shrinks Giménez Cacho’s body, yet not his face, to further summon that bizarre quality of dreams (or his take on the afterlife), recalling the visionary musings of Federico Fellini’s “8 ½” and “Amarcord.”
“Bardo” takes its somewhat puzzling title from the Buddhist belief that we must all spend time in an interstitial state between existence and death, a sort of limbo, before our transfiguration is completed. That spiritual precept applies to Silverio, to the child he and his wife lost just hours after his birth, and to Mexico’s current turmoil with a similar ideological relationship as the Catholic trifecta of the father, the son, and the holy spirit.
The term “bardo” also refers to a “bard” in Spanish, an ancient storyteller or lyricist tasked with reciting epics that immortalize the great feats of their people. The double meaning, depending on the language, reads like a brightly deliberate move on Iñárritu’s part, as both interpretations fit the scope and intention of his “Bardo.”
We first encounter Silverio as he rides a Santa Monica–bound train on the Metro Expo Line in Los Angeles. He carries a clear bag holding axolotls, a symbolic species of salamander exclusively found in Mexico City. As the bag rips and the entire train floods with water, we register that what Iñárritu and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone (“Birdman”) have madly concocted won’t follow storytelling conventions but rather an experiential mandate.
Amid the sweeping visual grandeur of “Bardo” — including stunning shots of a flying shadow on an arid landscape or a sequence in an unbelievably desolate downtown Mexico City — a handful of scenes plunge directly into the construct of mythmaking, both in terms of the legacy of an artist and the patriotic imaginary of a country. One of them comes early on, as Silverio imagines what could happen if he’d agree to an interview on live television with a former colleague.
On the show “Supongamos” (“Let’s Suppose”), the host deems Silverio hypocritical for maintaining an anti-American stance while living in L.A., humiliates him with the mention that his complexion ostracized him within his own family, and even uses his affinity for popular soccer team Club America as further proof of his lesser status in a classist and racist environment.
On their own, these attacks reflect on the collective faults of Mexican society, but they grow in gravity the more one knows about Iñárritu’s biography, including his time as a radio host before breaking into cinema and that his real-life nicknames often refer to his darker skin. Time and again, when it seems that the director won’t use the character of Silverio to place himself in the line of fire about his own privilege and career path, Iñárritu chooses to question himself.
Later, during what should be an inconsequential family breakfast before a busy day, Silverio angrily explains to his son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) that they are “first-class immigrants” who will never know the suffering of those forced to leave Mexico under perilous circumstances. The teen then confronts the filmmaker about his depiction of indigenous Mexicans as part of a caravan headed toward the U.S. border, who decide to take a detour to worship a saint, in one of his critically beloved documentaries.
Though Silverio believes his work to be important, there’s an inherent imbalance of power between those being documented and the one behind the camera. A moment later, his wife Lucía (Griselda Sicilian) reminds him how fiercely he defends Mexico tooth and nail from foreign insults but will turn around and criticize it from afar with righteous intensity.
In Silverio’s complicated bond with his motherland, one can witness Iñárritu’s desire to acknowledge his own distance to it, geographically and emotionally. From afar, as many immigrants can attest to, our yearning to belong often manifests in patriotic sentiments. Nobody is prouder of being Mexican than a Mexican outside of Mexico, by choice or need.
“I can’t understand my country, I can only love it,” Silverio utters to a member of the press who inquiries whether he can comprehend, after his long absence, the violent crisis that afflicts Mexico, as he enters the legendary Salon California for a dance party in his honor. Meanwhile, Khondji’s camera glides through the space with showstopping vitality as dynamic as the cumbia music that partially scores one of the film’s most dazzling episodes.
Halfway through the fête, actor Noé Hernández, a staple in Mexican cinema, has a cameo playing a prominent drug lord who’s been featured in one of Silverio’s documentaries. He pontificates on why the cartels have overpowered the rule of law and rallied the disenfranchised masses while the upper crust and intellectuals observe the mayhem with fear but also knowing they have options to escape it. That such a searing statement comes within a celebration heightens the film’s surrealism.
Iñárritu’s fictional account also addresses the United States’ historical exploitation of Mexico and its citizens with the fiery declaration that Amazon is about to purchase the Baja peninsula. To that point, within the exquisite walls of the Chapultepec Castle — where, in 1847, young Mexican soldiers fought American invaders — Silverio imagines the battle in turn diluting one of the most ingrained legends of patriotic bravery: that a Mexican teen wrapped himself in the flag before jumping to his death to protect the nation’s honor.
If one thematic throughline is evident in Iñárritu’s latest, it’s his belief that we construct ourselves from stories that are partially or entirely untrue, but that we nonetheless believe in order to function within the boundaries of our powerlessness. As spectacularly contradictory as the country of Mexico itself, “Bardo” revels in the sharp self-deprecation of its seriousness.
For example, there’s Silverio’s chat with an apparition of Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez, which is followed by a man on the phone openly discussing how pretentious the whole ordeal is. Or how offended Silverio and his family feel when a dark-skinned Homeland Security agent, presumably of Mexican descent, reminds them California will never truly be their home. Somewhere in between the explorations and tongue-in-cheek mockery lies a semblance of the truth Iñárritu seeks to share.
As we immerse ourselves in this odyssey of the mind — one that at some point in the second act openly litigates its own merits in hyper-meta fashion and that repeatedly wrestles with what we can assume are Iñárritu’s thoughts on religion and validation — we discover that the movie we are watching is at once the one Silverio is making and dreaming about. With no lines of division between its multiple dramatic layers, “Bardo” washes over us with an entrancing allure.
Made adventurously with no reservations, “Bardo” seems like the realized goal of an artist who would be fine with this being the final chapter in his filmography.
A movie experience so imposing that the mere pursuit of trying to capture it in words alone feels futile, Iñárritu’s most contemplative and stirring achievement to date wonders if anything we so fervently desire in this life matters as the sands of time will eventually erase all failure and glory. If only others’ recollections of who we were could stick around after we die, then maybe we all stand a chance at crossing the bardo, at returning home, or finding one somewhere.
“Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths)” opens in U.S. theaters Nov. 4 and premieres Dec. 16 on Netflix.