Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
For his first movie in seven years, Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu ponders the weight of being a filmmaker in a feature both spectacular and indulgent.
November 17, 2022
Everyone wants to be the person at the party that the dance floor revolves around, and life in general as well, or so Alejandro González Iñárritu contends in Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. In one of the film's many spectacularly shot scenes — with the dual Best Director Oscar-winning Birdman and The Revenant helmer benefiting from astonishing lensing by Armageddon Time cinematographer Darius Khondji — the camera swirls and twirls around Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, Memoria), the movie's protagonist, making him the only person that matters in a heaving crowd. Isolated vocals from David Bowie's 'Let's Dance' boom, and with all the more power without music behind them, echoing as if they're only singing to Silverio. Iñárritu is right: everyone does want a moment like this. Amid the intoxicating visuals and vibe, he's also right that such instances are fleeting. And, across his sprawling and surreal 159-minute flick, he's right that such basking glory and lose-yourself-to-dance bliss can never be as fulfilling as anyone wants.
That sequence comes partway through Bardo, one of several that stun through sheer beauty and atmosphere, and that Iñárritu layers with the disappointment of being himself. Everyone wants to be the filmmaker with all the fame and success, breaking records, winning prestigious awards and conquering Hollywood, he also contends. Alas, when you're this Mexican director, that isn't as joyous or uncomplicated an experience as it sounds. On-screen, his blatant alter ego is a feted documentarian rather than a helmer of prized fiction. He's a rare Latino recipient of a coveted accolade, one of Bardo's anchoring events. He's known to make ambitious works with hefty titles — False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is both the IRL movie's subtitle and the name of Silverio's last project — and he's been largely based in the US for decades. Yes, parallels abound.
While dubbing Bardo as semi-autobiographical is one of the easiest ways to describe it, simplicity isn't one of its truths, even if the film champions the small things in life as existential essentials. Another easy way to outline Bardo: Silverio faces his choices, regrets and achievements as that shiny trophy looms, and ponders where his career has taken him, who it's made him and what that all means to him. From the filmmaker who first earned attention for telling narratives in a fractured, multi-part fashion (see: his debut Amores Perros, plus 21 Grams and Babel), and lately has loved roving and roaming cinematography that unfurls in the lengthiest of takes (see: Birdman and The Revenant), this was never going to be a straightforward affair, though. And so he weaves and wanders, and has the silver-haired Silverio do the same, while weighing up what's brought them both to this point.
Bardo opens by visibly recalling Birdman, with a bounding force casting a shadow upon an arid land, but it's an early glimpse at a house from above that encapsulates Iñárritu's approach best. The home initially resembles a miniature, which Silverio then flits through — and, given its lead often segues between places and times like he's stepping through a doorway, the movie functions in the same manner. Sometimes, he's in a hospital corridor as his wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani, The People Upstairs) gives birth to a baby boy who whispers that the world is too broken for him to want to live in, and is then pushed back into the womb. Or, he's picturing how a big TV interview with a bitter ex-colleague could go wrong, or shrinking down to childhood size to chat with his deceased father. Sometimes, Silverio is in Los Angeles holding a bag of axolotls, or striding through Mexico City streets that are empty except for corpses.
Elsewhere in Bardo, Silverio has an argument with a US Customs Agent about whether he can say he lives in America, as part of the feature's interrogation of what it means to straddle two countries. But, he also refuses to fight when the family's housekeeper isn't allowed to join them at a swanky resort, with the film carving into its protagonist's contradictions. Also popping up: Silverio and Lucía's twentysomething daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid, On the Rocks) and teenage son Lorenzo (first-timer Íker Sánchez Solano), who are similarly tussling with the chasm between their heritage and the nation they've mostly called home, in the movie's multigenerational flourish. And, Bardo includes a recreation of the Mexican-American War, albeit with a brass band; a conversation with Aztec Empire-toppling Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés; and news reports about Amazon buying Baja California, as approved by the US Government. As ideas to unpack, enforced control over Mexico and willingly giving up ownership of one's Mexican identity never stray far from the picture's gaze.
A film can deeply contemplate weighty topics, personal and universal alike, and be told with rampant self-indulgence. Bardo is one such movie. Its best moments pull its audience into the frame emotionally and psychologically, and into Silverio's shoes, but it's also meandering and blighted by distance. Iñárritu isn't alone in trying to understand who he is by excavating his own story, of course. 'Tis the time for it, as James Gray has also done with Armageddon Time, Paul Thomas Anderson with Licorice Pizza, Kenneth Branagh with Belfast, and fellow Mexican filmmaker and two-time Best Director Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuarón with Roma. Iñárritu's first movie in the seven years since The Revenant, and his first set and shot in Mexico in more than two decades since Amores Perros, Bardo stands out by imagining its guiding force now looking back, rather than just looking back itself — and by veering so sharply between overdone and brilliant.
Thankfully, whether Bardo is at its trippiest or laying its thoughts and feelings bare — nodding to Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty no matter what fits — Giménez Cacho demands attention. In a performance that's never a case of an actor flattering his director, self-critical sadness radiates from his eyes as Silverio processes his trauma, plus confidence and ambition when he's wading through applause and acclaim. He's electric in that standout party scene, and thorny and tender when the feature calls for either, all seamlessly. Bardo doesn't want to be a seamless movie overall, though. It wants to gyrate, drift and whirl, and for that sensation to sweep up its audience like a man cutting loose at a shindig in his honour. It also wants to ruminate on battles internal and external, and jostle its viewers in every direction like a man conflicted. It does both and, as its title references, it loiters and lingers.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths screens in Australian cinemas from November 17, and streams via Netflix from December 16.
Top image: SeoJu Park/Netflix © 2022