Award season is rushing toward us, and with it comes a string of semi-autobiographical dramas inspired by their director’s lives and trials. Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans reimagines his post-WWII childhood with warm nostalgia, mother-son melodrama, and a giddy love of cinema. Meanwhile, James Gray’s boyhood story, Armageddon Time, pitches us into chilly Reagan-era America while tangling with regret and white guilt. But Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths breaks from the pack, focusing not on a youthful doppelganger but an aged analog who looks back on his life with a dizzying blend of pleasure, anxiety, and intellectual posturing.
All of these films are — perhaps — unavoidably indulgent, probing into a storied filmmaker’s soul with the thin mask of fiction to allow them to be as honest as they dare. Indulgence is a wickedly subjective device. If you have a sweet tooth, there’s no such thing as death by chocolate. But if you favor the savory, layering on the saccharine might make your teeth ache. So, it’s not a question if Iñárritu’s latest is indulgent but if that indulgence works. And honestly, I still can’t decide.
What is Bardo about?
Directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths centers on a Mexican journalist who, like Iñárritu, saw his career flourish in America. On the verge of accepting a major award for his work, Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) returns to Mexico and reflects on his career, life choices, and where he fits in his homeland and his adopted home. As Iñárritu has earned Oscar acclaim with movies like Babel, Birdman, and The Revenant, the comparison is clear. But his internal war of identity plays out in a slippery and surreal journey that is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
Receiving a sort of lifetime achievement award, Silverio is forced to look back on the path that led him here. Mirroring the way our brains might slide through thoughts and up and down our own timeline, the screenplay by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone (who shares an Oscar for his work on Birdman) slips from Silverio gently tucking in his young son to, moments later, confronting the same son, now a rebellious teen. Likewise, a lecture on Mexican history comes to life with vivid re-enactments, as if the soldiers sprung full-bodied and colorfully costumed from Silverio’s thoughts. Elsewhere, settings bleed into one another: A subway car blinks to become a humble house, with only a staring passenger and a dropped parcel to connect them.
It’ll be literally hours before Iñárritu fully reveals what all this slipperiness in the narrative means. But a keen-eared audience will be clued in early on. And frankly, once you know, waiting for narrative to unfurl over the two-hour, 39-minute runtime can feel occasionally torturous.
It’s not that Bardo is all about its third-act reveal. But realizing the device at play, I found it difficult to emotionally engage in the cerebral battle playing out across neon-lit rooftops, sun-splashed resorts, and scorching deserts. With this framework, Iñárritu creates a distance his execution can’t broach.
Bardo is visually stunning but emotionally numbing.
The visuals are rapturous, complimented by Darius Khondji’s kinetic cinematography, which sweeps us through a carefully choreographed long take reminiscent of Iñárritu’s sharply frenetic Birdman. This throws us into the thrall of Silverio’s inner turmoil, extrapolated with dancing girls and crushing reunions. However, there’s a chilly remoteness to the film. As Silverio jaunts from one dreamlike scenario to another, we might well gape at their oddness, like when Iñárritu pulls an Aline, showcasing a full-grown man shrunk down to child-size as Silverio confronts his dad (and his daddy issues). We might well swoon at a musical number, where all the guests of a party move meaningfully to a David Bowie song, reflecting the hero’s hard-earned but brief bliss. But the coolness of this doesn’t let us get close.
Within this syrupy strangeness, Iñárritu injects a dark bemusement that scours for humor in scenes of death, defeat, and even genocide. One striking example is at the movie’s start, when Silverio and his wife (Griselda Siciliani) face the death of their newborn child. Rather than a grim sequence of heart-wrenching drama, uncomfortable comedy is borne from a graphic birthing sequence where a CGI baby whispers that “the world is too fucked up” and politely requests to be returned to his mother’s womb. The doctors oblige, making for some gynecological physical comedy that is first shocking and silly but then lurches into a gross-out gag as the befuddled mother wanders down a hospital hallway with the umbilical cord trailing her, a bloody, meaty bother.
Bardo has a dark and daring sense of comedy.
The humor here is impressively uneasy, seeming to suggest that faced with such darkness, what are we to do but laugh? And there are moments throughout Bardo where we might laugh in defiance of the absurdity of life, our own mortality, and the petty battles we pick as our time in this fucked-up world races by us. But for every sequence that clicks, either by being thrillingly humorous or softly haunting, there are another three or five that lumber by with big ideas but diminishing returns.
For their part, the cast dives in without fear of drowning in the metaphors. The family, which includes Ximena Lamadrid and Íker Sánchez Solano as Silverio’s grown children, bickers with authenticity but slides into the absurd just as easily. Cacho shoulders the film with cool confidence, which makes him a compelling guide through this cerebral crisis. However, the film’s ardent slipperiness kept me from being able to grab hold and feel rather than just see his trauma.
In the end, Bardo is more mind-bending than heart-wrenching. It’s psychologically interesting but not satisfyingly gripping. It’s a trippy exploration of a man at war with himself. But in the end, Iñárritu doesn’t seem sure what it means to win or lose that battle. So, perhaps the destination is not the point; maybe it’s all about the journey. And if that’s the case, Bardo is a rocky road, made up of moments of tenderness and outrageousness, as well as great swaths of ponderous conversations and tedious ennui. Your mileage may vary.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths opened in theaters Nov. 4 with an expansion on Nov. 18. The movie will come to Netflix Dec. 16.