Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Stars: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid
At the time of writing, James Cameron’s bloated, remedial Avatar sequel is filling cinemas across the globe. Meanwhile, on the small screen via Netflix, Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu makes his return seven years after conquering American with the one-two punch of Birdman and The Revenant. At it’s opening, BARDO, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths (ugh) presents the shadow of Iñárritu’s own avatar, making great leaps over the Mexican shrubland. Is he a superhuman? Is this representative of a dream, or his own ego? The ensuing 2 hours and 40 minutes make strong arguments either way.
Daniel Giménez Cacho is his on-screen foil, Silverio; a journalist-turned-documentarian who is to receive a prestigious award for his work from critics in Los Angeles. In spite of this accolade, Silverio is malcontented. At home his marriage to Lucía (Griselda Siciliani) is strained by the shadow of their infant son Mateo’s premature death, and there are comically vulgar allusions to Lucía having the newborn baby reinserted into her cervix after birth. This recurring imagery of a boy housed – or wishing he were housed – within his mother feels potently Freudian; perhaps the director’s most defenseless admission regarding his own psyche? With a piece like this – which seems to be filled with so many personal reflections on the world and its politics – its all too inviting to play armchair psychoanalyst on its oversharing creator.
As has been noted by many, there’s a Fellini-esque bent to Iñárritu’s latest. It’s roving carnival atmosphere, it’s naked surrealism and sense of autophilia, the bawdy, adolescent draw toward voluptuous breasts. Its hard to disagree with the sentiment, but I’d counter that the more fitting associations are a shade more contemporary. The Italian Paolo Sorrentino springs more keenly to mind, or Iñárritu’s fellow countryman Alejandro Jodorowsky (though one might argue that both of these luminaries are themselves indebted to Fellini). Still, I’d push their association above Fellini’s simply because of the ravine’s distance of success between Iñárritu and Fellini. Where the Italian maestro’s indulgences reflected the mores of his country – the bourgeoise excesses, the sexual repression and misogyny – and by extension acted as commentary, Iñárritu’s mirror reflects only himself.
There are broad efforts to address the tensions that perpetuate between the US and Mexico (Iñárritu and his work straddle the two; one foot either side of the border), but they manifest strangely. A subplot about Amazon bidding to take ownership of the Mexican state of Baja, for instance, fizzles into nothing. More often, such nods to a conflicted history are resonant of little more than Silverio’s narcissism. His obsession with his own legacy and reputation. The satire here lacks elegance, though maybe that is precisely the intention. A brazenly ugly and indulgent act of self-examination. If so, Iñárritu does not interrogate himself with kindness.
In an imagined conversation with his father, Silverio infantalises himself, albeit with an oversized head. Right before this, talk show host Luis (Francisco Rubio) lacerates him at the party hosted in his honour, chastising the docufiction in which Silverio inserted himself into the action (a reflexive move from Iñárritu anticipating his critics?). Tellingly, however, this critic is literally silenced as if Iñárritu/Silverio had obtained the power of God. Elsewhere and more interestingly, Lucía challenges Silverio that the Mexico he so patriotically defends is unknown to him. One hopes that this will engender a cultural rebirth. Toward the end of the second hour Silverio roams the streets as though attempting exactly this. But he moves like a ghost, encountering only further reflections of his alienation. Citizens collapse around him – the victims of his acquiescence to the Northern colonists? Fallen statues suggest a Mexico that is already over, and mortal anxiety is shot through every scene of BARDO.
Darius Khondji’s roaming cinematography apes the heavenly glide that Iñárritu’s most recent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki brought to bear. BARDO has that same fluidity, and it frames many of the film’s dreamy fantasies like a hornier, mid-life-crisis-y The Tree of Life (so Knight of Cups then). Performances are strong and, as intimated, it looks every bit as ravishing as any other production that Iñárritu has mounted. In between these confirmed-good elements is Iñárritu’s own struggle; an act of self-deconstruction that admonishes more than it aggrandises. The director can’t solve his own schism and displacement between the US and Mexico. He can only express it on his own terms. Whether succeeding or floundering (the morose final third), the attempt itself is arresting.
Ultimately, much like listening to someone retell their own dream, BARDO is only as intermittently fascinating as its subject, and who asks to hear someone retell such things? Technically accomplished as it may be, re-watches feel, frankly, unthinkable.