Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu || Produced by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Stacy Perskie Kaniss
Screenplay by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone || Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Sicilani, Ximena Lamadrid
Music by: Bryce Dessner, Alejandro G. Iñárritu || Cinematography: Darius Khondji || Edited by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mónica Salazar || Country: Mexico || Language: Spanish, English
Running Time: 159 minutes
Many elements of Babel (2006), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015) exist in Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (“falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades” in Spanish, or simply Bardo), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first feature in seven years since The Revenant won its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, his long coveted Best Actor Oscar. From Babel, non-linear storytelling dominates as the screenplay jumps across decades of its characters’ lives; from Birdman, various magical realism elements to surrealist dream sequences inform its protagonist’s arc, blurring the line between internal vs external dialogue, not to mention their capture by the 2014 Best Picture winner’s ubiquitous Steadicam long-takes; from The Revenant, you’ll find unpredictable edits between those handheld long-takes (there’s no superfluous illusion of depicting the entire story in a single, digitally stitched mega-oner) as well as detailed contemplation of one’s connection to their national, ethnic, and class identity. To say that Bardo is a culmination of all the narrative and cinematographic experiences of its auteur’s filmography thus far would be an understatement, as it stylistically feels like a grab-bag of the filmmaker’s most identifiable traits in camerawork, characterizations, pacing, and overall cinematic storytelling.
The film, perhaps Iñárritu’s most divisive since Biutiful (2010), also feels like an homage to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). In the latter film, the late, great Italian filmmaker summarized his general artistic anxieties as a director through a feature in which his most famous collaborator, actor Marcello Mastroianni, portrayed a fictionalized version of Fellini struggling to complete an ambitious science-fiction blockbuster despite creative interference and indecision. Bardo, much like 8 1/2, melds its metafictional narrative with personal reflection of its principal artist’s life, such that Iñárritu’s surrealist set-pieces become a vehicle for exploring its protagonist’s development as well as a conversation with the viewer about the film itself. Toss into that stew a plethora of unsettling wide angle lens-photography and hazy, esoteric philosophical symbolism, and you have a movie that fans of Stanley Kubrick to Terrence Malick might enjoy.
I emphasize the word “might” in that previous sentence because I don’t think the film works, however much I like the visual references to those seminal filmmakers. Similar reactions abound with critics, too, so much so that the polarized reaction to Bardo recalls the baffled critical reception to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013) after the latter’s far better received mainstream breakout of Drive (2011). On the one hand, Bardo’s technical execution, cinematography, and epic scale are immersive (minus some shoddy computer generated imagery). The film is built around 5-6 primary sequences that transition in and out of surrealist imagery, reconstructing various key moments in the protagonist’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) recent adult life, all of which involve either his achievement of a major journalism award, public reception to his most recent documentary feature, or his complicated relationship with his family. A throughline across all those topics is Cacho’s complex midlife identity (his character has worked and lived in Los Angeles for over a decade on an O-1 Visa with his wife and children) crisis that results from his international lifestyle and cultural insecurity over his Mexican origins.
If you know anything about the background of writer-producer-director (… and co-editor and co-composer) Iñárritu, you’ll notice many conspicuous similarities between him and Cacho’s lead a la DiCaprio’s physical resemblance to Christopher Nolan in Inception (2010). Filmmakers channeling their likeness through protagonists is not a new thing, yet in this case with the film’s loaded political diatribes, tonal whiplashes, nonlinear, almost stream-of-consciousness storytelling, and engorged running time (159 minutes), Iñárritu pushes that artistic license to extremes. Strengths of that approach are the quirky diegetic details Iñárritu brings to particular sequences like the rhythmic progression through airport customs familiar to any frequent international traveler, or the relatable, unique pain connected to the loss of a child shortly after their birth. Even an otherwise heavy-handed dreamlike scene where Cacho argues with the ghost of conquistador Hernán Cortés about indigenous American genocide at Mexico City’s Zócalo has plenty of spunk to it that most lesser actors’ directors couldn’t inspire
The greater number of downsides to this thinly veiled autobiographical approach are obvious from where I stand. For one thing, the aforementioned commentary about socioethnic identity to intercultural grievances (e.g. the US-Mexican War [1846-1848]) to Latin American migration comes across intermittently amusing but often preachy; Iñárritu seemingly felt that “his most personal movie yet” and sizeable Netflix budget allowed him carte blanche to use Bardo as his personal soapbox. His overwhelming personal insecurity, his sheer defensiveness with respect to the topics discussed by multiple characters in this film comes across as grating given the immense length of the film and the repetitive visual nature of many sequences. Iñárritu’s direction doesn’t do the meandering plot many favors, either, as the numerous visual metaphors are, like the dialogue, painfully obvious and the wide-angle cinematography makes the unmotivated tracking shots feel like nature documentary footage.
What’s most disappointing about Bardo is that Alejandro Iñárritu could’ve used this premise about a man torn over his identity and fatherhood responsibilities to say something coherent a la Fellini’s 8 1/2, but instead he talks himself in circles over two and a half hours through a series of encounters that likely feel important to only a handful of people who can identify with Iñárritu’s life experiences. The characters themselves feel like stand-ins from Iñárritu’s background, someone’s ideas of specific characters rather than identifiable people with fully formed personalities, because everything must make room for whimsical, surrealist set-pieces that, in the end, are the result of a major plot contrivance. I didn’t resent Bardo like I did much of Biutiful, my least favorite film of Iñárritu’s, but I do feel like I wasted my time.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Bardo is less than the sum of its parts despite how much it draws from the styles of other noteworthy filmmakers, as well as Iñárritu’s own filmography. Its sociopolitical introspection isn’t that interesting unless you can identify with the highly specific situations described therein, the camerawork feels like a so-so remix of previous Iñárritu movies, and the dialogue grows repetitive after 159 minutes of the same stuff.
— However… the film’s narrative ambition is admirable and its metaphorical imagery is striking at times.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED; Alejandro Iñárritu’s return to his cultural roots, unlike Alfonso Cauron’s, lacks a cohesive vision and the restraint necessary to expand beyond its autobiographical nature.
? Isn’t an O-1 Visa technically a nonimmigrant visa?
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