November 25, 2022
No one can ever blame Alejandro G. Iñárritu for not trying hard enough. Be it the juggling of multiple storylines across multiple languages in Amores Perros and Babel, the one-take trickery within Birdman, or the on-location shooting in frigid temperatures for The Revenant, Iñárritu has never been one to take the easy road.
With Bardo, another entry in the ever-growing and possibly soon-to-be fatigued genre of director autobiographies, the two-time Academy Award winner for Best Director rivals only Charlie Chaplin and his fellow countrymen Alfonso Cuarón in terms of how many facets of production he has fingerprints all over. Serving as the director, writer, producer, editor, and composer, and basis for the entire narrative, there isn’t a single moment where Iñárritu’s presence isn’t front and center, resulting in the year’s most technically accomplished and uber-pretentious (you decide the connotation of that term) piece of filmmaking.
Bardo, or Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths as it's officially called (here’s hoping Iñárritu stops with these elongated titles, Birdman was enough), marks Iñárritu’s first feature film since 2015. Of course, who can blame him for wanting to step away from it all after the immense logistical pressures of constructing Birdman and The Revenant? But more than just returning to making films, Bardo also represents the Mexican director's return to his native country since his 2000 debut of Amores Perros.
Unlike most directors, like Kenneth Branagh with Belfast or Steven Spielberg with The Fabelmans, Iñárritu’s view of his personal life isn’t through rose-tinted glasses. The character named Silverio Gama serves as the Iñárritu stand-in. He’s one of the most revered journalists and documentary filmmakers in Mexico and the United States. But fame in both lands is a double-edged sword, with many of his critics, himself included, finding him too gringo for Mexico, and too Latin for America. “Success has been my biggest failure,” Silverio claims as he prepares to accept an honorary award that will surely churn that existential divide even more.
Just as it is within other memory-based films like The Tree of Life or 8 1/2, the plot within Bardo isn’t really all that important. Much of the film is told out of chronological order, looping around in a circle as aspects from early scenes get reworked into later ones. And much of it isn’t literal either, with plenty of symbolic moments, such as a reenactment of a 19th-century battle or a newborn baby asking to be put back in the womb because “the world is too fucked up” (yes, you read that right), used as grand representations for personal turmoil and existentialism. Is any of it really that deep or insightful? No. And should I have a ton of sympathy for an ultra-successful celebrity that’s going through a glorified midlife crisis? Also no.
But there is great beauty within Bardo’s falseness. Replacing regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki (who went off to help David O. Russell make his first feature since 2015 in Amsterdam) is the equally legendary Darius Khondji, doubly present this year with James Gray’s Armageddon Time. Iñárritu and the Iranian cinematographer concoct some of the most mesmerizing images of the year, taking inspiration from Terrence Malick’s insistence on natural lighting. Many of the most stunning moments are told in Iñárritu’s signature long takes, with the highlight being a dance sequence where the camera weaves around a sea of people as it follows Silverio letting loose. On a technical level, this often feels like Iñárritu’s most ambitious film yet, which obviously is quite the statement. But just like Edward Berger’s All Quiet on the Western Front, this must-see theatrical experience will be mostly limited to television screens as Netflix holds the distribution rights.
Bardo is a work of staggering beauty, looping around in circles as it makes you ask questions about how we got here, what's going on, and what's going to happen next. Fans (such as myself) will latch on to this singular vision and ponder the meaning behind it all, while detractors will immediately turn it off on account of its obtuse pretentiousness. And, like any great work of art, both sides will be correct in their stances.