Having just seen Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), it’s clear to me that this is your most personal work, a magnum opus you’ve been building toward throughout your exceptionally successful career. Manifestly, this is your 7½ to Fellini’s 8½, a semi-autobiographical extravaganza of a sort that a precious few elite directors ever have attempted.
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It’s a dazzling work, one that pointedly lays out the professional pressures, domestic turmoil and sizable ego issues that come with being the center of so many people’s lives.
Even the most successful filmmakers — and artists of any kind — have their ups and downs, their successes and failures, their periods of being sought after and in fashion, and then being in the doghouse. You, Alejandro, largely have avoided this roller-coaster; you scored a major success with your breathtaking first feature Amores Perros at the Cannes Film Festival’s Critics’ Week in 2000. Next came the edgy 21 Grams and then Babel, for which you won the Best Director prize at Cannes.
A Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination, for Biutiful, followed in 2010, and then, in successive years, 2014 and 2015, you managed the stunning feat of winning a Best Director Oscar for the quirky and original Birdman, and then again for The Revenant, a physically and emotionally challenging frontier drama, with the former also winning Best Picture.
After that, you clearly needed a break. Still, you took advantage of the occasion by creating the arresting virtual reality installation called Carne y Arena, which I beheld first in Cannes 2019, and subsequently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This, again, saw you pushing into a new frontier with an alternative mode of audiovisual creation; it remains unclear whether this immersive experience might lead us into a new frontier or nowhere, but it was a bracingly immersive one-of-a-kind experience.
It’s been one of the hallmarks of your adventuresome career that you’ve always pushed further into familiar and potentially perilous territory, in terms of your subjects, locations and the formats in which you present your narratives; you never play it safe or fail to challenge yourself creatively. Any number of directors, in the wake of Fellini, have attempted some sort of summing up, reflection, analysis or critique of their careers, if often obliquely. Now you, with Bardo, have joined this select group.
And here, Alejandro, I have to say, you’ve indulged yourself in a way you never have before. Yes, of course, you’ve earned it and are entitled to it. But it’s also the first time in your career that your creative boundary-pushing and exploration have not paid off; instead, your adventuring has become scattershot, frantic and undisciplined, to counterproductive results.
In Bardo, you’ve transformed your successful filmmaker self into an illustrious Mexican journalist, a man whose attention is divided amongst his wonderful wife, minds-of-their-own kids and the endless demands of work. He’s long since proven himself and, with an award with which he’s about to be presented in a would-be career-crowning moment, he now has precious little to prove (and perhaps something to lose) on the professional front.
But, like Marcello Mastroianni’s character in 8½, our hero remains deeply immersed in the relentlessly assaulting issues of the day. He’s widely respected but harried; despite his stature, he feels younger dogs biting at his heels, an ever-growing presence that will only become more pronounced.
You’ve put a lot of effort into revealing the elemental fabric of Bardo’s life; this hyperactive professional is stretched very thin, and, as a journalist, I greatly appreciate the accuracy and complexity with which this peripatetic man’s life is drawn; very effectively shown is the combination of personal drive and weariness, professional pride and disgust, and overall exasperation provoked by both his personal and professional pursuits. Energy is everywhere, it comes through in all aspects of the film. The set pieces are phenomenal, your sense of staging often surprising, your use of camera unendingly inventive.
However, Alejandro, this time I’m afraid that you didn’t know where to stop. You’ve turned your bracingly sharp look at life on our weary, endangered, recklessly managed planet into a Fellini-esque extravaganza that saps most of the power out of the story you’ve so carefully constructed from the beginning.
What could have been deep, devastating and fully satisfying at two hours and change has become a sprawling over-indulgence at three hours-plus, an overstated, overstuffed thing in which much of the intelligence, creative surprise and surpassing technical expertise has been drowned by a simple lack of discipline, focus and restraint.
All I could think of as the film slowly and repetitiously lunged toward its conclusion was how old-time philistine studio heads would have brutally chopped an hour out of it and been scorned by the critics, including myself. Despite its intelligence and persistent beauties, enough was enough and, in the end, way too much.
All the same, I will always look forward to your next film.
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