Alejandro Iñárritu | 2hr 39min
More consistent than the regularity with which Alejandro Iñárritu has released new films over the past decade or so is the insurmountable ambition which guides them, and there is certainly no understating that aspect of Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Here, the darkly comic self-criticisms of Birdman meet with the surreal awe of The Revenant, and together sprawl out across an introspective examination of Mexican culture, history, and politics. As a result, this film is both an intimately spiritual experience and easily his most inaccessible yet. Iñárritu has effectively carved out his own narrow niche in the arthouse cinema landscape, turning the indulgence and extravagance he is so often criticised of into Bardo’s greatest strengths, and thereby lulling us into a lucid dream that seeks some unity in the metaphysical absurdity of his complicated life.
Mexican documentarian Silverio Gama acts as a character surrogate for Iñárritu here, and there is barely a second of screen time in this expansive, wandering film that doesn’t centre him. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Lucia, and his son, while his daughter lives out of home. It is the spectre of a third child, Mateo, who has the most impactful presence of them all though, constantly lingering in the background of family conversations. His introduction comes in the first few minutes when we find ourselves in the hospital where Lucia is giving birth, though in an amusingly surreal twist of circumstances, the doctor announces that the baby has told him that he never wanted to come out to begin with.
“He says the world is too fucked up.”
Naturally, it is back into the womb for Mateo, who will remain eternally young without ever knowing a full life. The scene is played for laughs, ending with Lucia’s umbilical cord grotesquely trailing after her and Silverio as they leave down the hallway, but it only barely conceals the tragedy lurking beneath. It isn’t until over an hour later that we learn the truth of Mateo’s existence, which lasted a mere 30 hours before he passed away and consumed his family with an anguish that they haven’t yet learnt to let go of. His scattered appearances throughout the rest of the film intermittently come at the unlikeliest times, but such is the nature of his memory that those who loved him most will often find ordinary activities disturbed by their unresolved grief.
“Mateo’s just an idea now. Not a person.”
The liminal space that Mateo lingers within between life and death thus gives the film the first part of its title – what Buddhist philosophy calls ‘bardo’. So too can it be applied to the experience of the film as a whole, contextualising Silverio’s endless wandering between dreams and memories as the existential thoughts of a man facing down his own mortality. Through Iñárritu’s persistent, wide-angle lens, Silverio is distanced from the world around him, whether he is intimately framed right up against the camera away from his environment or pushed off into the distance of gigantic set pieces. Daniel Giménez Cacho’s versatile talents as an actor are well-suited to this off-kilter aesthetic too, seeing him command the screen with expressive dance moves to an acapella rendition of ‘Let’s Dance’, and conversely lash out at critics who disparage his work as “pretentious and pointlessly oneiric”.
Therein lies the reasoning behind the second part of the film’s title, with False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths being the name of Silverio’s latest movie – an autobiographical piece of docufiction not unlike what we are watching. In fact, Iñárritu’s screenplay even goes so far as to single out specific scenes from earlier in the film as the target of the friend’s scathing evaluation, putting both himself and Silverio in an awkward, defensive position that only reveals their own bitterness. Perhaps Silverio is right in calling out the hollow sensationalism of their work in the media industry, though it doesn’t make him any less out-of-touch with a modern world that he laments “slips through our fingers.”
In conducting such a personal examination of his art and how it is shaped by his difficult relationships with others, Bardo lives beneath the giant shadow of 8 ½, paralleling Federico Fellini’s comically surreal journey into his own mind on multiple levels. The characters of Guido and Silverio are themselves quite similar in the fanciful, existential musings that disconnect them from reality, though an entire ocean separates their respective cultures. In place of Italian paparazzi and Catholic guilt, Bardo is soaked in references to Mexican politics, history, entertainment, and social issues that few films have addressed before with such intensive focus. Although some familiarity may be handy in understanding the world that is inherently part of Silverio’s identity, Iñárritu does not set this up as a prerequisite to absorbing oneself in his emotional journey.
Instead, it is the sheer power of Iñárritu’s visual imagery and symbols which engage our understanding of Silverio as a man whose complicated relationship with his nation can’t be simplified into a single talk show interview. Early on as he debates the U.S. ambassador on the matter of the Mexican-American war, he conjures a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Chapultepec right on the grounds where they meet, emphasising the patriotic bravery of the outnumbered soldiers that legend has named Niños Héroes. This scene additionally showcases some of cinematographer Darius Khondji’s finest work, fluidly pivoting the camera from a simple conversation to largescale warfare, and subsequently flying through the precisely choreographed action in long, dynamic takes.
Metaphor and spectacle are woven even closer together later in more explicitly surreal interludes, at one point seeing Silverio wander around an empty, rundown city that gradually springs to life in a lengthy, parallel tracking shot. The woman in the crowd who suddenly drops to the ground goes ignored by everyone but him, and when he investigates, she informs him “I’m not dead. I’m missing.” What follows is a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, seeing every other citizen except for Silverio fall one by one, joining the statistics of Mexicans who have been killed or kidnapped by organised crime rings, and eventually leaving the city silent once again.
With the sun rapidly sinking below the horizon, it is a fluent transition into Silverio’s next vision set in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, where Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, sits atop a mountain of Indigenous bodies, reciting passages of Octavio Paz’s poetry. There, Silverio spills out the complicated feelings that many Mexicans today hold towards the man who laid the foundations of their civilisation through genocide, though such weighty scenes are never so burdened by dense dialogue as to grow tedious. All through these Fellini-inspired sequences, Iñárritu’s direction is as graceful and hypnotic as the seamless transition from one dream to the next, building out a stream-of-consciousness structure that just keeps on revealing new depths to this filmmaker’s insecure, troubled mind.
Tying all these historical diversions back to Silverio’s relationship with his nation is the contradictory nature of his own patriotism, making him just as likely to praise Mexico’s proud heroes as he is to express his shame over its rampant crime. Much of his stance at any given time depends on who he is speaking to, in one instance correcting his son that their home country is not “poor”, just “unequal,” though as an immigrant choosing to live a life of privilege in the United States, he is still vilified for “kissing gringo ass.” A quiet curiosity that often emerges in such interactions is speech that comes from closed lips, suggesting some obstacle of communication between characters, though never being tangibly explained besides a few throwaway lines that ask others to “Talk with your mouth.”
This is undoubtedly a project of immense passion and ambition for Iñárritu, and easily his most avant-garde, touching on the extensive range of worldly influences that have shaped him into an adventurous filmmaker, grieving father, and sceptical Mexican expatriate. If Fellini’s artistic inspiration was there in the film’s opening with a point-of-view shot flying up into the air above a desert and falling back to Earth, then it is even more present in the brilliant climax that returns to the arid wasteland, gathering the various loved ones in his life for a final celebration. Even the marching band from the Battle of Chapultepec re-enactment is present, underscoring Silverio’s journey through the transitory ‘bardo’ afterlife with a bright, brassy melody, more than a little reminiscent of the closing music from 8 ½. Iñárritu’s bold abstraction of one man’s fading life may be cynical and even absurdly funny at points, but in bridging the gap between material and immaterial worlds, it is also a deeply spiritual work, building a mountain of rich visual metaphors to deliver one of the most formally complex cinematic achievements of the past few years.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is currently streaming on Netflix.
6 thoughts on “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022)”
Great review as usual. Haven’t seen it yet but really looking forward to it.
That MS is very encouraging. Been trashed everywhere. Too ambitious as if that is a bad thing.
You are a pretty incredible writer. It’s always a pleasure to read your work.
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Thanks, that means a lot! It’s important to me that I at least try do any film justice with my writing. This one is certainly deserving of huge praise too. Are you planning to get to it soon?
Great films deserve great reviews and you do that all the time . Adds to the experience.
I should get to Bardo by the end of 2022. It’s available on Netflix here. Will take the plunge soon.
If i am may, are you doing any director studies rn? Your Kieslowski read was fabulous.
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I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Bardo, definitely a very special film.
At the moment I am working my way very slowly through an Ingmar Bergman study, so there will be a few more reviews of his early stuff going up soon. That said, he had a huge career (45 movies total) and I’m hoping to get to all of them which is a big task, and I’m only 10 films deep right now. I think it will be a very rewarding experience in the end though. Could take a good few months while I’m balancing it against keeping up with current films.