One can debate if Bardo sees director Alejandro González Iñárritu in a state of meditative limbo, or if it’s evidence that he’s simply braindead. Put another way, one can easily leave Bardo wondering if one has just seen the best film of the year or the worst. The film, which is fully titled Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths does a double whammy with two of 2022’s movie trends. On one hand, it’s a filmmaker’s self-examination through movies. On the other, it’s a title that makes a copyeditor’s head explore. The fact that Bardo, [A] False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths combines both trends indicates peak indulgence.
Iñárritu, the master filmmaker, indeed looks back at his illustrious career. If the man has an ego, which he clearly does, it’s well earned. He has a whopping five Oscars—three for Birdman, one for The Revenant, and a special Oscar for the virtual reality work Carne y arena. Every one of his features is Oscar-nominated. He’s probed the depths of raw human emotion in films like Amores Perros and 21 Grams. Babel and Biutiful combined beauty and bleakness in stories of globalization. Birdman and The Revenant delivered technically accomplished, artistically daring marvels. After all this, what is a director left to do?
The answer, of course, is to assess his career and somehow repeat every coup of his prior works in one epic film. On his seventh feature, he pulls a Fellini and does what the maestro did between his eighth and ninth features. Bardo rips off 8½ to the point of plagiarism, but at least Iñárritu steals from the best. (I must admit bias as my cat is named Fellini.) The film is a truly cinematic tapestry of his greatest hits and the stories that inspired them.
Daniel Giménez Cacho assumes the Marcello Mastroianni role here and plays a stand-in for the auteur. His Iñárritu-ish character Silverio is a journalist/documentarian straddling the poles of commercial sell-out and hack filmmaker. The film follows him as he embarks on a press tour in advance of receiving a lifetime achievement award from the journalists’ guild. The career achievement leaves him wondering about the path he’s taken. He’s made documentaries about migrants’ hardships, but also some controversial works that crossed ethical lines between non-fiction and creative license.
If Silverio’s career sits at a crossroads, his personal life is in shambles. For one, fatherhood doesn’t suit him. An early scene of Bardo sees Silverio’s wife, Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) deliver a baby. However, the kid decides that he doesn’t want any part of this world. In a surrealist moment, the doctor advises Lucia to spread her legs so that he can shove the baby back in. It’s an icky moment of inadvertent misogyny— Iñárritu doesn’t seem to know how women’s anatomy works—but also a poignant, provocative image. Within the first few minutes of Bardo, one will know if one’s willing to suspend belief and forgive Iñárritu’s navel-gazing. This film is definitely an acquired taste, and requires an active choice to commit to it.
A Filmography Revisited
As Iñárritu charts Silvio’s story through various vignettes, one can see elements of his films evoked through aesthetics and stories. There’s the bleakness and grit of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Biutiful in harshly lit hospitals. Jaunts through the desert are flights of visual fancy that evoke the snazziest shots from The Revenant. Working with cinematographer Darius Khondji after collaborations with Emanuel Lubezki, there’s great visual continuity to Bardo and Iñárritu’s oeuvre. Notably, the backstage sequences on Silverio’s press tour evoke the one-take wonder of Birdman’s fusion of film and theatre. The lighting, the theatricality, and the cinematic panache in Bardo all nod to Birdman.
As a filmmaker, Iñárritu has never pushed himself so far. Bardo is the kind of film one makes when one achieves the greatest heights of creative freedom. There are sequences more epic in scope and ambition than anything he’s made, although this may be the first time his film doesn’t stick the landing. There are indeed moments of great, though, amid the epic self-congratulation. The most masterfully played moments of Bardo, though, are not the ones of bombast and scale, but of intimacy and introspection. A powerful shot of Silverio and Lucia saying farewell to a child is among the most emotionally satisfying moments of Iñárritu’s oeuvre, achieving a level poignancy none of his previous films has approached.
What Is Left to Say?
Bardo inevitably reminds a viewer that Iñárritu is responsible for several masterpieces from the past 15 years. Few track records are as solid as his run from Amores Perros to The Revenant. However, Bardo derives its title from the Buddhist state of limbo that marks the transitional state between death and rebirth. With Bardo, though, one discerns that Iñárritu knows the unexamined life is not worth living, but it’s not clear what, if anything, he learns from looking back. Perhaps he wants to tell the audience that he could die happy with the mark he’s left. One might leave Bardo with less of a sense of Iñárritu’s authorial signature than one had going in, though. That’s compared to watching 8½ and immediately grasping the term “Felliniesque.”
Where Iñárritu struggles is in revisiting his own work. More often than not, Bardo simply evokes films that Iñárritu has made before and has made better. Particularly with the nods to Birdman in Bardo does the film leave something to be desired. Silverio confronts a film reviewer in the way that Michael Keaton’s Riggan comes to blows with Lindsay Duncan’s sourpuss theatre critic. But the encounter here is on the nose—blunt, cruel, and inelegant. In Birdman, the exchange provocatively holds artists accountable for their choices, but also reminds critics that their mincing words with people’s souls.
Oddly, Bardo might draw the harshest critiques of Iñárritu’s career even though it’s the deepest he’s opened his soul. In cracking himself open, though, he may be confirming a cynic’s attitude to his body of work: he can make one hell of a visually dazzling, technically accomplished movie—but one that has no soul. One can only hope that Iñárritu’s eighth, or eight-and-a-halfth film, sees him fully reborn and reinvented.