Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is now showing in select theaters, and will debut on Netflix on Dec. 16.
Few films have so poetically captured the feeling of dreams; even fewer have subsequently explained them to death in such literal terms. Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades — or Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths — is the 7th feature by Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the first to largely feel in tune with his more recent visual style, the kind he developed during his Oscar-winning one-two punch of Birdman and The Revenant. Bardo is, on its surface, the most accomplished of the three, because it’s exactly what it wants to be. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. The film all but comes right out and justifies its own haphazardness, albeit poorly, and it frequently buries its tale of time, loss, and identity under the clunkiest possible metaphors, which arrive in a ceaseless barrage of disconnected images and sounds for 152 minutes.
The cut that premiered at the Venice Film Festival was 22 minutes longer, though I’m told by those who’ve seen both versions that the update is somehow worse, owing to many individual scenes being truncated rather than excised whole cloth. Even in service of bettering the movie, Iñárritu has stuck to his guns, and retained every single idea he uses to tell his story of an LA-based journalist and filmmaker returning to Mexico after years away. On one hand, that’s admirable; you should always do you. On the other hand, this creative stubbornness, to follow every single impulse without a second thought, becomes the audience’s problem.
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A handful of initial scenes are actually quite delightful, moving farcically between surreal vignettes, historical events, and life milestones, and blurring the lines between them, as the soundscape becomes enveloped by ceremonial marching bands. It’s bouncy, and frenetic. Middle-aged documentarian Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is on the verge of being bestowed with accolades by his American peers, which also garners him plenty of adoration back home, south of the border. He’s a thinly veiled stand-in for Iñárritu himself who, after his Mexico City-set debut Amores Perros, pivoted to Hollywood productions and films set all over the world. His 2010 drama Biutiful may have been a Mexican co-production, but it was set largely in Spain; Bardo is Iñárritu’s homecoming too.
Before Silverio re-visits Mexico with his wife and teenage kids, Iñárritu collapses and remixes the timeline of his life in the U.S., between scenes of his wife giving birth to a baby who doesn’t want to be born (the result is absurdly hilarious), and scenes on public transport where the lines between dream and reality have basically shattered. This is the film’s default lingua franca, which it continues to speak as the specter of historical conflicts between the U.S. and Mexico looms large, riding a fine line between playful re-enactment and outright hallucination. Iñárritu introduces the idea of Silverio’s two-pronged national identity using his signature wide lenses — which whip around corridor corners in disorienting fashion — and blaring trumpets which, when coupled with the visual dizzying fabric, imbue Silverio’s spiritual schism with a strange momentum. A trapeze-circus of the soul.
Charitably, it works for about 30 minutes.
The problem with this uncanny approach becomes quickly clear when Iñárritu tries to slow things down, introducing shadows of macabre and somber ideas into his otherwise zany approach. The purpose is to delve deeper into Silverio — his past, his present, what makes him tick — but before long, the dreamlike presentation exists primarily to explain its own meaning, weaving in verbose conversations that expose its own allegories and rob them of mystery or ambiguity, before doubling down ad nauseum. For every scene where thoughtful symbolism unearths some nugget of truthful experience, you can expect two more that repeat the exact same themes in plain dialogue, staged even more plainly. When Iñárritu’s unbroken takes move through space, alongside characters in propulsive motion, the effect is dazzling. When that same unflinching approach is applied to static shots of lengthy conversations, the façade becomes clear. The emperor has no clothes. Powerful, personal ideas may underscore his style, but he seldom knows how to express them with dramatic precision.
To make matters worse, Bardo also has a character similar to Birdman’s cartoonishly vindictive theater critic, and while this version speaks more cutting truths about Silverio’s work, it reads only like acknowledgement of (or at best, apologia for) Iñárritu’s half-baked visual musings. At times, the critic even describes Silverio’s dreamlike encounters — which is to say, he criticizes Bardo itself — but lampshading the movie does little to reveal anything by way of creative perspective. It’s the She-Hulk finale with some sheen.
As a moviegoing experience, Bardo would at least be discombobulating if it weren’t so dull, and didn’t so wastefully employ the gilded touch of Darius Khondji’s 65mm photography. The film is most effective when it takes on either farcical or musical qualities — when it tickles the senses, or when it moves through you with mysterious rhythms — but the further it goes on, the less frequently these moments appear. What’s left are scenes meant to be operatic in appearance, like those with enormous caravans of people wandering the desert or bodies strewn about empty streets, whose tableau-like staging seems intended to elicit either awe or reflection. But there are too many empty stretches leading up to these scenes, too many vapid images that have little to say in and of themselves, so the movie’s more visually enormous moments can’t help but feel insignificant.
There’s a sense of self-criticism, certainly, as people take aim at Silverio for creating proletariat poverty porn from the perspective of (and benefit of) the bourgeoisie — an accusation that could just as easily apply to Iñárritu’s work — but Bardo’s political musings are half-hearted at best. They’re mere gestures towards throughlines between colonial history and modern migrant crises, and Iñárritu has little interest in exploring this element of modern Mexican (and Mexican American) identity in a manner that isn’t just window dressing for Silverio’s self-reflection, which ends up similarly gestural in the process.
If Bardo has one major strength, it’s Giménez Cacho’s diminutiveness as Silverio — his sheer lack of ego as a performer, even when performing egotistical scenes — despite the strange moments when Iñárritu uses his Netflix budget to literalize even this idea, warping his body with some distracting digital effects. Still, there’s a roughness to Giménez Cacho, a kind of subtle, disheveled sorrow that’s intriguing and amusing all at once, making him the perfectly sardonic, sad-clown embodiment of the film’s creative anxieties, especially when he dances, lacing even celebrations with a lingering melancholy. He always feels like he’s searching for something just out of frame, though he seems to know, in his bones, that actually reaching out for it is folly.
He’s exhausted in all the right ways, capturing an oft-ignored element of the immigrant experience, and the way that living between two worlds — the title, while “bard” in Spanish, is also the Tibetan Buddhist term for such a transitionary state — can, after a while, be oppressively tiring to even think about. It’s just unfortunate that, despite Iñárritu’s best efforts to aesthetically contrast Giménez Cacho’s demeanor, he ends up making a film that feels at one with his performance. It’s exhausting in all the wrong ways, a feeling that only compounds as it lurches towards its conclusion, one that tries to capture the ethereal poetry of Malick and Tarkovsky, but ends up caught in a recursive loop of “the curtains were blue, because the curtains were blue, because the curtains were blue…”
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