'Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths': A Dazzling, Self-Indulgent Meditation on Life
There comes a time in every acclaimed director's career where they make a film that reflects on their life and career. Films like Federico Fellini's 8 1/2, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, and Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York all fit this category, as they each focus on a creative type (which acts as a stand-in for the director) and sees them reckoning with their past work, and the sacrifices they've made in order to rise to fame. These projects usually come after a massive brush with success, where the director wonders what comes next, and whether everything up to this point has been worth it. After winning back-to-back Oscars for Best Director in 2015 and 2016, it is understandable that Alejandro G. Iñárritu would find himself confronting his past and future and feeling unsure about where he will go next. This brings us to his latest feature, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths which sees him wrestling with his career, family life, identity, and what comes next for him. Iñárritu takes an abstract approach to all this, as he channels Fellini to make a dreamlike epic that sees him looking deeply at his own life. It ends up feeling self-indulgent and drawn out, but it is also one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, and a fascinating meditation on life and all of the uncertainties that come with it.
The film centers on a journalist turned documentarian named Silverio Gama, who has achieved major success over the years. He returns to his native country of Mexico, and begins to experience strange dreamlike visions that cross over into his day-to-day life. This leads to Silverio having an existential crisis, and the line between fact and fiction being blurred significantly. In the process, Silverio confronts his mortality, his identity as a Mexican man, the strain his career has put on his family life, and his general place in the world, among other things.
So many of my issues with the film lie in its screenplay. Iñárritu and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone certainly have some interesting ideas that they want to explore here, but it ends up feeling excessive. The film does nail some of these ideas, but there is so much here that it feels a bit overwhelming. It doesn't help that the film runs at a hefty 2 hours and 40 minutes, which allows Iñárritu to cram a lot into this film. I respect that he wanted to make this film big and that he wanted to cover a lot of different themes, but it does come at the cost of the film feeling spread too thin. Iñárritu and Giacobone are dealing with some complex ideas, and while they do a great job with most of them, some of them either get lost in the spectacle of the film, or they just aren't touched on as much as they could have been. On top of that, the film's tone is a bit uneven, as it doesn't quite strike the balance between comedy and tragedy that it is going for. This, coupled with the extended runtime, makes the film feel meandering and unfocused several times throughout.
What the film does do exceptionally well is depict how random life can be. The dreamlike imagery that we see throughout the film is woven into Silverio's everyday life rather seamlessly, which highlights this point perfectly. It makes for a disorienting experience, but that's clearly what Iñárritu is going for. He shows how dizzying it is to be alive and successful, and how it is nearly impossible to juggle all the responsibilities and aspirations we have as people. The abstract visuals are quite vivid and memorable, but there are some moments that feel a bit on the nose and pretentious. However, these aren't nearly as bad as the moments where the film screeches to a halt to spell things out for the viewer. A scene where Silverio is having a conversation at a party basically lays out the central concept of the film on a silver platter, and feels unnecessary. Another scene which involves Hernán Cortés also feels a bit ostentatious, but it does feel a bit more in line with the film as a whole.
On a purely technical level, the film is quite a marvel. The way the camera moves throughout is so arresting, and is so perfectly choreographed with what we are seeing on screen. In the more surreal moments, it fits the dreaminess that Iñárritu is going for so well, and has an otherworldly quality to it. Darius Khondji does a tremendous job as the Director of Photography here, as he is able to capture the feeling of dreaming, as well as the slight disconnect from reality that Silverio is experiencing, in a beautiful, striking way. The production design is also to thank for this, as it is so specific and grand that it matches the scope of the film well, and completes the dreamy look of the film.
At the center of the film is Daniel Giménez Cacho's excellent performance as Silverio Gama. Cacho brings a world-weary sensibility to the role, and gives a naturalistic performance that plays off the film's surrealism nicely. It's a great contrast that helps the film walk the line between feeling like a dream and feeling realistic. It's easy to connect with him and feel the struggles he is experiencing, as he inhabits the character effortlessly. It is almost as if we are in his head and seeing his innermost thoughts and dreams for much of the film. Cacho's performance isn't too showy, but it still makes a great impact nonetheless. Also giving a quiet, yet powerful performance is Griselda Siciliani, who plays Silverio's wife, Lucía. She might not be as much of a focus as Silverio, but she has such a great presence every time she shows up, and her scenes with Cacho are excellent.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu definitely put a lot of himself into this film in terms of the story and the character of Silverio, but he also contributed to more of it than just writing and directing. He also co-edited the film and co-composed the score as well. This is undoubtedly his most personal project to date, so it makes sense that he wanted to be involved in so many aspects of the film. It helps that he has great collaborators for most of these aspects, but it is kind of impressive that he does a good job in all of them. Iñárritu has never been a filmmaker that I've been too crazy about, but his work here legitimately impressed me. He has always come across as a showy filmmaker to me, which keeps me from being fully on board with most of his work. But this film is a great match for those showier sensibilities of his, and lets him take some big swings that pay off more often than not. I hesitate to call this his best film, but it does encompass his style and personality better than any of his other films to this point.
Bardo is self-indulgent, and it overstays its welcome a little, but it is still an ambitious and fascinating effort from Alejandro G. Iñárritu that impressed me far more than I was expecting it to. It could have been much leaner and better paced, but I do like what Iñárritu and company are going for here. I can see this being a film that I end up appreciating more as time goes on, as there is so much to take in with this film, and it's the type of film that benefits from thinking and meditating on it for a while after watching it. Some might dismiss it as pretentious (which I don't fully disagree) or they might be confused by what Iñárritu is doing with the film, but this clicked with me for the most part. It is a flawed film, but I admire the big swings it takes, and I love how gorgeous the cinematography is. There is something so hypnotic and alluring about the film, and even if it lost me in places, it is still one of Iñárritu's best efforts to date, and a fascinating reflection on his life and success. It is a vanity project in many ways, but it is also quite resonant, and one of the most visually striking films of the year.