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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” Reviewed

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

“Bardo,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, is a journey through unconsciousness, memories, regrets, and collective souvenirs. The Mexican filmmaker has described his new movie as a lucid dream, a dream you have while being aware that you are dreaming, but also one of the most enjoyable experiences that you can have. Thus, if you are watching “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” suspend your rational lobe and relish the surrealist ride. There is no real plot, no linear story, no explanation, and no answers, the journey is just a mystery. It’s probably a movie I should have seen in a theater because the cinematography is stunning, and the visuals certainly deserve the large screen experience but, signs of the times, I streamed it on Netflix.

The title, “Bardo,” refers to Tibetan Buddhism and the state between life’s end and the beginning of the next, when consciousness is not connected with a physical body. Westerners may have translated it as “purgatory,” but I prefer the idea of a lucid dream, a series of surrealistic scenes that reminded me of the cinematography of the greatest. I immediately thought about the great Spanish director Luis Buñuel, while other people have mentioned Fellini, which says a lot.

If there is a storyline, we could say that Silverio Gamma, the main character played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, is a famous Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker who has lived for much of his professional life in the United States and returns to Mexico City to receive a lifetime achievement award. At a time when popular movies rely on unnecessarily complicated plots and relentless action scenes, “Bardo” is the opposite of that. It’s a piece of art, and a very personal movie exploring a lot of themes going from identity to family, history, professional success, failure, existentialism, and especially immigrant’s life, torn between the love-hate of a native country (Mexico is described as “a dead country, where none of us die”) and the appeal of a new one.

Mexicans who live in the US will probably have plenty to say about the film, about the depiction of the Mexican culture and the Mexican experience outside of Mexico while never fully realizing the American identity. They may particularly appreciate the scene between Silverio and the immigration officer who tells him that he cannot call Los Angeles home because he’s not a U.S. citizen and has an O-1 visa (a visa for people with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry). That’s a realistic scene that nevertheless blurs reality and fiction – why would an immigration officer insist on saying that to a man returning from a trip?

The entire film makes the distinction between reality and fiction very blurry, and some scenes are completely both surrealistic and disturbing: baby Mateo doesn’t want to be born because the world is too fucked up, and he is immediately pushed back inside the uterus of Lucia, Silverio’s wife… after walking through the streets of Mexico City where people inexplicably drop dead by hundreds, Silverio has a conversation with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, seated at the top of an impressive hill made of indigenous bodies. The absurdity of some scenes is both comical and horrific, and there is an obvious self-deprecation at the most serious moments.

The dreamscape of the cinematography is vast and creative, the themes universal, the emotions all over the place, the images mesmerizing, and the folly of Silverio’s memories bring him to dark and bright places… however, light is always there despite the gloomy nature of many scenes. I heard someone calling the movie a “concept album” because of the collage concept, which leads us to the music, very present, but always subtle, rarely hijacking a scene but complementing the emotions with vibrant tubas, amazing brass pieces, or emotive string orchestration. The soundtrack includes an original score co-composed by Bryce Dessner (The National) and Alejandro González Iñárritu as well as David Bowie’s iconic “Let’s Dance,” many salsas, cumbia numbers, and Mexican pop icon José José.

Because of Iñárritu’s own life and career, the film feels very personal; there is a constant mirror between his life and Silverio’s, and in case you would complain about the length of “Bardo,” when a family member also questions the length of his last film, Silverio replies: “It’s 90 minute-long, you lazy bum.” Bardo is actually 159 minute-long, but you get the message.

As for the many critics who have called the movie self-indulgent or even narcissistic, it’s difficult for me to understand why. Will they make the same criticism about Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” which seems to be a personal/autobiographical movie too? “Bardo” is an immersive experience and a dense and profound movie. It is an exploration of memories, false for most of them, but memories that construct our identity and that we have to believe in order to continue to exist.

1 Comment

  1. Craig Hammons on December 19, 2022 at 12:32 pm

    Excellent and spot on review. I have all of his work especially The Birdman but Bardo was a true visual and surreal ride. The camera work on the dance scene would have made Scorsese jealous.

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