When we first find Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), renowned Mexican journalist turn successful documentarian, he is having a wild set of dreams. From floating in the air to the unusual birth of one of his children to buying new axolotl fish for his home, he wakes up all out of sorts, wondering what is real and what is a trick being played in his mind and on ours. But the real cause of all of these mysterious dreams steam from the anxiety of not only traveling back to Mexico, his homeland, with his family to accept an award for his lifetime achievement in journalism, but also coming back to the US to accept a similar reward and how he is feeling internally about the meaning of these superlatives at this stage of his career and life. This tug and pull of nationalism, self-identification is at the forefront of the majority of the fantastical ideas that director Alejandro G. Iñárritu explores in Bardo (Or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), his most self-reflecting, epic film yet.
Silverio’s relationship to his country is strained, to put it nicely. Since he moved to California, he has lost touch with his ancestral roots and the friends he was once close with. He did it to do what every immigrant with the opportunity to move to America does, make a decision that was best for him and his family. He’s comfortably lived there for twenty years, with his eccentric wife Lucía (elegantly portrayed Griselda Siciliani) and their two children (excellent first-time performances from Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid), alongside the remembrance in dream sequences of their first son Mateo, who died during delivery at the hospital yet the pain of losing him haunts the parents still. But as his work is slowing down, and no new project in site, his mind begins to become in flux as he starts to think more and more about the life he’s had as these awards come in, even though wants to avoid any part of it, like interviews with his former friend now big time talk show host or writing the acceptance speech.
His examination into his own personal history takes turns down the outcome of the Spanish-American War, journalistic integrity, individual truth, nationalism, parenthood, wisdom, and above all else, what life really means for someone who is lost and without a true sense of home. In a scene at the breakfast table, Silverio argues with his son over the purpose of one of his documentaries, and that he made it because he sees his story of struggle within a group of immigrants traveling across the U.S., Mexico border. But his son challenges his father, accusing his father of negating his privilege and not fully understanding how fortunate he is to be in the position their family is in. Later in the film, his daughter chastises him about not knowing how to do normal things like take a train or ride a bus in LA, therefore making it clear that he can’t play the hardship card anymore because his story of coming to America is vastly different than those he writes about.
It’s a biting, refreshingly honest statement for Iñárritu to write in his most layered script to date. He uses Silverio as a presumed vessel for dealing with these similar feelings he is having as he is hitting his 60s very soon calls back to Fellini’s 8 ½, while still being its own creation. Cacho’s stellar performance perfectly captures the essence and style of his director’s perceived in the world, with urgency and nervousness attached to every action and word he utters. Over the years, due to various reasons, audiences have looked at Iñárritu the person as exactly what he is examining in Bardo, as a highbrow artist who thinks he knows more than everyone in the room. Throughout the course of the film, Iñárritu pokes at this notion and deconstructs it from both sides, leaving no stone unturned in concluding that while you make think you know this man because you consume his art, there is a lot of pain, wonder, and mystery under everything he does and says. Art is not something that comes without a price, especially when you are trying to make something that speaks to important things beyond the superficialities of life. Most directors aren’t willing to do what he does here, which is lay themselves bare and throw the knives at themselves and see how hard it hurts. By speaking on this foundational element of Bardo, Iñárritu becomes his harshest critic with this frank yet sincere approach to artistic integrity.
From a visual standpoint, the film is a sensational triumph and the best work Iñárritu has had behind the camera in his career. Alongside acclaimed cinematographer Darius Khondji, Bardo’s beautiful landscapes in the afterlife are equally as stunning as the dream sequences themselves, accompanied by a soaring score from Bryce Dessner and Iñárritu. But the highlight of the film is in the second act at the nightclub/award ceremony in Mexico, where this duo shines as they take you on a journey worthy of just its own film (you’ll never hear David Bowie the same way again). Throughout the film’s runtime, dozens of stylish tracking shots establish the energetic locations in which Silverio, and possibly Iñárritu himself, continuously explore. With this, you ultimately give yourself over to what is being shown on screen, and you can look away due to the anticipation of what might be shown next.
As a Mexican American, I felt Bardo’s attention to detail and visual chaos displayed is some of the most accurate depictions of Mexican culture in film in a long time. From the conversations between Silverio and family about legacy and heritage, to the music, rhythm, and dancing at the nightclub celebration, to the food displayed or discussed throughout the film, to the overall mood Iñárritu captures of the culture and what it means to be a person stuck between two homes, it’s incredible. There is a touch of warmth and sentimentality in Bardo that is usually devoid from his films and is a welcomed detail to this unique saga.
Some of the momentum of the first two acts is slowed down by the melancholy third act, but it doesn’t deter and only adds to the film’s expansive milieu. The nearly three-hour runtime is necessary for this modern auteur filmmaker to submerge us into a dreamscape of complex ideas and an over-the-top visual fest that is truly astonishing. If Bardo is the type of bold, truthful, passionate filmmaking Iñárritu is going to be making on this grand of a scale, one can only imagine what he will deliver next.
Bardo (Or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) will receive a theatrical release in Mexico on October 27, in the U.S. on November 4 then stream globally on Netflix December 16.