In the comical opening moments of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s first film in seven years, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, renowned documentary filmmaker Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his wife (Griselda Siciliani) give birth to a son…who quickly lets them know that he wants to be shoved back inside his mother. And so, well, they do. It’s a funny, even shocking sequence, especially given how unnatural this kind of comedy is coming from Iñárritu, even if instinctively we know this scene is meant to be a melancholy one representing the death of a child.
There are many scenes like this in Bardo, where Iñárritu is trying to make a profound point under the cover of humor, and sometimes it works. More often than not, this obviously deeply personal and introspective work, an indulgence granted to him by Netflix’s deep coffers, feels bloated and shallow. It’s the work of a filmmaker given too much free reign, with too much to say and yet nothing at all. That doesn’t mean it fails to entertain. On the contrary, Iñárritu is such a vivid visual talent that it’s easy to overlook the rambling psychobabble and just enjoy the ride, overlong though it may be despite 22-minutes being cut following a shaky Venice premiere.
It’s a risky gamble for a filmmaker to make a movie that is even marginally a reflection of their own life. And yet ego seems to demand that every auteur at least give it a shot. We’ve got a handful of them this year alone, from Spielberg’s The Fabelmans to James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Iñárritu is the only one, for now, borrowing so liberally from the book of Fellini. Silverio is a Mexican documentarian who has spent years plying his trade in America, and is set to be given an award for his journalistic efforts. But this also causes him to reflect on his feelings towards Mexico, the way they have treated him and his career, its national identity, and much more. This crisis is expressed through surreal visions, some ridiculous, others extremely grim and foreboding, but all gorgeously realized by Iñárritu and DP Darius Khondji.
Decked out in flashy suits and shades, like a true Fellini icon, Silverio walks with one foot in reality and the other in fantasy. In one of his visions, a former friend and talk show host invites him onto his show, where Silverio believes he will be insulted in front of millions, left unable to speak by his own shame. In another, he envisions a conversation with Cortés atop a mountain of dead Aztecs he has conquered. It’s hard to get a grip on what this world is that Silverio exists in, even if the larger points Iñárritu is hitting at are worth exploring. A recurring gag is that Amazon is set to buy Baja California, the northernmost territory in Mexico, and the people argue the pros and cons even if the Mexican government is gung-ho about it. There are surface-level conversations about the value of true journalism over headline-grabbing clickbait sites, which one can easily assess is Iñárritu commenting on real filmmaking over studio blockbusters.
The problem is that, despite the lengthy 152-minute runtime, none of these conversations are particularly deep, and Iñárritu clearly knows he’s going to take heat for it. In a real-life exchange between Silverio and his friend, the latter calls his work pretentious and shallow, criticisms that could easily be applied to Bardo. But isn’t that always the way? When filmmakers explore their own lives it’s never as probing as it could be. Perhaps it’s fear of being exposed too much, of what others might say in response. Perhaps it’s fear of being revealed as something that goes against public perception. Iñárritu tries to mask this under a veil of comedy and metaphor, which doesn’t at all feel natural coming from him, and it’s unclear what all of this is supposed to amount to. Is he grappling with the choices made in his career, from his humble start with Amores Perros in 2000 to the larger productions of his recent past?
On the flip side, the best moments in Bardo are the most grounded. Silverio and his wife Lucia playfully chasing one another around their cozy home. The love between them, we can feel that it hasn’t always been easy but the passion is still there based on years of mutual trust. An argument between Silverio and his teen son Lorenzo about his father’s lack of understanding of Mexican culture and its people, who live a life of hardship that he’ll never know. A raucous party in celebration of Silverio, given by his Mexican peers. Silverio and his family simply dancing the night away, the problems they face vanished for just the small oasis of total pleasure and freedom. This is Iñárritu at his simple best.
Iñárritu has earned accolades all over the world, and as one of the few filmmakers to win Best Picture twice in a row for Birdman and The Revenant he more than deserves it. Going meta has obviously worked for him in the past, but Birdman was, among other things, a commentary on the cinematic landscape by bringing back the original Batman to play a different fictional superhero character. There are greater personal stakes for Iñárritu this time, even if some of the fantastical aspects of the storytelling are similar. Bardo looks amazing, is never boring, and clearly is Iñárritu’s most passionate project in years. But it is also a work of immense ego without clear direction, rendering it more of a curiosity than anything else it could’ve been.
Bardo opens in select theaters on November 18th, followed by Netflix streaming on December 16th.