Review: Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu Goes Surreal, Contemplative in Sort-of Biopic Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Having won five Academy Awards, filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, Biutiful, Birdman, The Revenant) has made his first film to be shot in his native Mexico since 2000’s Amores Perros. The result is his most surreal and personal expression to date, as he stares down the barrel of 60 and contemplates his life, reputation, and legacy with humor, self deprecation, and the penetrating sense of loss. Like his fellow Three Amigos (also including Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón), Iñárritu has had his greatest cinematic successes working within the Hollywood system (all three have won Oscars, for starters), so his sense of identity is warped. This is the struggle at the forefront for Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) in Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, a film that manages to be both epic in its visual language and scope but beyond intimate in its questions about remembering where you came from versus who you are at your existential core.

For Silverio, these questions arise when he’s announced as the recipient of a prestigious international award, an accolade that brings him back to Mexico from his current home in Los Angeles. He began his career as a respected Mexican journalist and has become one of the most revered documentarians in the world. The film begins with a handful of truly bizarre sequences that hopefully set the tone for the rest of the movie being both deeply autobiographical and also capable of showing us anything, no matter how strange or seemingly nonsensical. We get a first-person POV shot of someone running across a desert and leaping high into the air; we see this person’s shadow soaring into the air, eventually taking flight. Then we get a brief moment of Silverio on a subway car that fills with water, followed by a birth in which the baby tells the doctor that he isn’t ready to be born yet and so he’s placed back into the mother (who turns out to be Silverio’s wife). Try making sense of that. Actually, by the end of Bardo, most of the strangeness is explained, and it’s one of the biggest cinematic gut punches I’ve received all year.

The bulk of the movie is actually told in a fairly straightforward manner. Silverio comes back to Mexico with his family in tow and goes to visit old friends and colleagues, all the while being challenged about having moved to America and the changing nature of his values and work. But Iñárritu is a filmmaker who excels in immersive, breathtaking visuals and long tracking shots that bring us along for a ride, whatever the subject or journey. We see an entire sequence in which Silverio goes into a television studio for an interview by a former colleague who has repeatedly ripped apart his films over the year and rips into the filmmaker once again for his life choices, but then we find out this was a dream or vision, and Silverio blew off the interview, making his old friend rather pissed off.

During the course of Bardo, Iñárritu has no qualms about roasting himself and his reputation, which is why I’m somewhat confused by charges that the film is pretentious and self-indulgent. It absolutely is, and that’s the point. The art reflects the artist, who almost can’t help himself as he plays into the charges by his critics by even assuming we’d care about a self-reflective journey such as this. As it turns out, I absolutely do care and am desperate to watch as his family rips into him in ways that bite hard but are also outrageously funny. The film doesn’t just deal with Silverio’s history; it’s bold enough to tackle the history of all of Mexico in one of the movie’s most stunning sequences set amongst a pile of dead bodies in a town square that our protagonist climbs. Moments like these feel like they are built of pure anxiety and borne to question the source of one’s success. As written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone, Bardo deals with universal issues filtered through an existential lens that allows Silverio to contemplate mortality, sanity, family, and his very humanity in times of pure chaos, best represented by a confrontation we see involving Silverio and a TSA agent about whether he is allowed to call Los Angeles his home—not legally, just on principle. It might be the angriest moment of the movie and feels like it is ripped right from life.

The version of Bardo that is hitting theaters (and eventually Netflix) is noteworthy for being about 20 minutes shorter than the print that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and I hope at some point that full three-hour cut gets released in some form, because even shorter, this movie packs a punch as it confounds our brains. As mentioned, the film’s final scenes do what I believe is a solid job of explaining (not overly so) the film’s more surreal moments. But even if it hadn’t, I think I still would have been quite moved by the artistic achievement of the piece. Perhaps not for everyone, Bardo is one of those rare experiences that is about both those who experience imposter syndrome and those who think very highly of ourselves. It may not come together for everyone, but it’s about all of us.

The film is now playing in select theaters and will begin streaming on Netflix beginning December 16.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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