The protracted, and syntactically awkward title of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film—Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths—may seem a touch abstruse, but it’s actually pretty spot-on branding. You get whiffs of grandiosity, a hint of metaphysics, and even a pretty clear declaration of where this often baffling, overlong, half-dreamt/half-remembered mirage of a movie ultimately lands. Iñárritu has now officially become one of those international award-winning filmmakers who considers himself a visionary, and every protracted foot of the movie feels like a swooning statement of self-conscious greatness for which we are supposed to be thankful.
Not that Bardo isn’t often spectacular, gorgeously shot, brimming with quasi-Surrealist set-pieces, and full of Mexican apasionamiento. It is. But whereas Birdman (2014)—which also shouldered a mouthy, oddly punctuated subtitle: “or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”—triumphed by way of savvy pop culture irony, and The Revenant (2015) bulldozed through by way of a daring formal treatment of landscape, Bardo has only its maker’s self-regard to sustain it. We are in Fellini territory—specifically, the members-only opium den of 8½, where so many artists go once they’ve attained global godhood.
The difference is that Fellini’s proxy “maestro” is a self-crucifying basket case, deranged by both his creative paralysis and his narcissistic relationships with women. Iñárritu’s stand-in, Silverio Gama (a plum stage for vet Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a documentary filmmaker on the verge of winning a career-capping American award, about which he is ambivalent. Everyone else is, too—virtually everybody in the film calls him on his careerist hypocrisy, as he has doggedly tried to make films that are genuine to the Mexican experience, and yet has supplicated himself one way or another to American culture. His latest film, a “fictionalized” doc, is titled False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, and is apparently the film we’re watching. His wife and two children live both in L.A. and Mexico City, a tension that also plagues him. An earlier baby lost to SIDS is oddly mourned—oddly by Iñárritu, who plumbs that emotional well with stunningly tasteless comical bits about the baby wanting to return to the womb. There’s even a 30-foot umbilical cord, and a years-later sex scene where Silverio must push the imaginary mini-baby’s head back into his amused mother’s womb. A double-bill with Blonde, which would run almost 5.5 hours, would break anyone’s patience with autonomous CGI fetuses and gyno POVs.
It’s not a story so much as a character study of a rather dull man, and the film pensively, unhurriedly tracks his slippery subjectivity, as he observes Mexican TV kitsch, parries with an ex-friend TV host, argues with his teen son (Iker Sanchez Solano), enjoys a huge dance party thrown in his honor, talks with his mother (alive) and father (dead), and wanders through Mexico City and into a dream in which he argues about Mexico’s history of colonial slaughter with the ghost of Hernán Cortés, while standing atop of 50-foot-high mountain of bodies. Then, cut! It’s actually part of Silverio’s new film. Maybe.
All of this is executed with Iñárritu’s by-now trademark toolkit of tropes: the long tracking shots, the insistent ultra-wide-angle lenses that bend every room and hallway, the crafty CGI trickery, all of which dazzles until it finally starts to seem threadbare. (He even swipes from Tarkovsky: levitation from The Sacrifice, the sand-filled house from Stalker.) Is Iñárritu aware of how his film’s swollen and sweeping visual texture contradicts the various characters’ convincing arguments about Silverio’s pretentiousness and disconnection from Mexican life? Or does he see the clash, and doesn’t care?
I kept thinking of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (2018), as a contemporaneous Mexican Oscar winner’s navel-plunge, and how correct, heartfelt and humane that film is by comparison. Not to mention un-solipsistic; Cuarón was more interested in his childhood family’s maid than he was in himself. In any case, amid its many longueurs, Iñárritu’s tale is rife with implausibilities—where does a documentary maker get this kind of celebrity, and in what world is the movie we’re watching a doc, “fictionalized” or not? But ultimately the film folds everything into a ravishing subjective flow that answers every question with a shrug. Which seems an apt response. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
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