It’s hard to feel bad for successful people. Even when life becomes difficult for them, they can rest easy knowing that professional validation and financial wealth keep them afloat. Few would feel sympathy for Alejandro González Iñárritu, the winner of back-to-back Directing Oscars in 2015 and 2016. The very legitimate question, “what do I do next?” clearly weighted on Iñárritu for years. So he decided to embrace every whimsy, fantasy, and self-doubt he’s ever had, packaged in a single film. His first film since 2016, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, is every bit a maximalist feature full of seemingly pretentious ideas. Yet, pulling back the layers, it’s a film that meets the director on his wavelength instead of attempting to impersonate a normal person. Iñárritu not only flays himself and his mind for two and a half hours. The resulting film enters the canon for directors letting their surrealist flag fly. This is the maximalist filmmaking you love to see.
Journalist and documentarian Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) return to Mexico before receiving a unique award. While the country and his friends celebrate Silverio, he finds life a struggle. His wife (Griselda Siciliani) continues to struggle with her miscarriage. Silverio’s son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) mocks him for considering himself a “true Mexican,” while his daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) cannot find her place in American schools. Silverio cannot face his former partner Luis (Francisco Rubio), and the weight of Mexico’s history continues to weigh on his shoulders. As he dives deeper into the culture he left behind, the documentarian’s visions become increasingly unmoored from reality.
Iñárritu has long been pegged as a dark and nihilistic filmmaker, often skewering obvious ideas. This began with the backlash against Birdman and only intensified after The Revenant. Opinions certainly vary on each, but there’s a cynicism facing both that feels increasingly results-oriented. At the heart of Bardo, Iñárritu appears to agree with the consensus. He believes himself something of a fraud, overrewarded for the work that made him the scourge of cinephiles around the globe. Yet, at the same time, Iñárritu knows what he is as an artist and filmmaker. He goes as big as he can, as often as he can, and Bardo is no different.
As Iñárritu critiques and parodies himself, he lets the craziest ideas of his mind take shape. Silverio converses with Cortez on a mountain of native peoples’ corpses. He captures images of a caravan trying to escape to America but does nothing to help them across the border. Iñárritu wanders in deserts of his own making, trying to find purpose but finding the life he’s built barren in many aspects. These ideas are rather commonplace, but the ways in which Iñárritu frames and stages the sequences allow audiences to see him work at a level rarely captured on film. He stuffs every idea and concept in his life into Bardo but also pokes fun at himself for doing it. He knows every image is maximized and absurd, but what is the point of creating surrealist art if we do not go full tilt?
To further add to his questions about self-doubt, Iñárritu attempts to contextualize Mexico’s history within his life story. At times, this works to perfection. A sequence at Chapultepec Castle showcases the “Niños Héroes” (Boy Heroes) who gave their lives during the Mexico-American War to defend Mexico City. While Silverio lauds the actions of these boys, who were willing to sacrifice themselves to defend their homeland, he wrestles with the fact he left Mexico to pursue success. In dreams and reality, he’s chastised by Luis and Lorenzo for leaving. They contend that Silverio only champions Mexico when it’s convenient for him, and he’s quick to demonize the country when white men praise it. Silverio is at once too Mexican for most white audiences but is also seen as a traitor by Mexican friends. Trying to find belonging while existing between these extremes makes for fascinating introspection.
To bring Silverio to life, Cacho delivers a virtuosic performance as the director. It’s truly hard to imagine that many performances will top the portrayal of Silverio in Bardo, in part because Cacho pours his heart into the role. He creates an extremely moving and emotional performance that hinges on Iñárritu willingness to open up to Cacho. It’s clear that Cacho has, and while a lot of Iñárritu remains on the screen, it’s also clear that Cacho has paved his own road. If one did not know Iñárritu was directing, this role still works because of the fleshed-out nature of the character. It’s a masterful performance, very much in the vein of Roy Scheider in All That Jazz.
Cacho’s performance will likely draw the most eyes, but Siciliani’s performance is also rather special. She imbues her character with life, despite facing a tragedy that would break most people. Her spirit and joy help the film land its comedic underpinnings as well as its most emotionally rich moments. In many ways, she’s the secret MVP of the film that helps bring Bardo into focus. A scene in the ocean continues to haunt me weeks after first viewing the film.
Additionally, Iñárritu maximizes every aspect of filmmaking. Surprising no one, his cinematography is stunning. DP Darius Khondji creates dozens of gorgeous shots, especially during the nightclub sequence. However, his ability to play with light or block out camera movements helps create the dreamlike surrealism that Iñárritu requires. The energy of the sequences he captures adds to the absurdity. The sound stuns once again as well. Again, the showstopping party literally forces us to reckon with the importance of this aspect of the film. It’s a stunning moment and one that resonates throughout the film. Arguably, it’s the best use of sound to convey a feeling of emptiness juxtaposed with jubilation.
Some have already knocked Iñárritu for the length of the film, but the two-and-a-half-hour cut allows moves rather well. One could find a slightly tighter cut, so it will continue to get knocked for its length. Admittedly, there are some scenes towards the end of the film where this hurts the momentum. The Visual Effects are a problem, which is surprising given his previous use. However, in this one, they feel absurd to the point of breaking the illusion.
Ultimately, Iñárritu takes a giant swing, and the mileage will vary. However, the ideas are big, the questions about self-worth are personal, and the visuals are outstanding. This is what we want our best filmmakers to do. These are the films that are essential for cinema to survive, even in a world where the theatrical model is crumbling. Iñárritu’s ability to look at himself in the mirror and realize he’s going to carry these burdens for life is undeniably artistic and compelling.