In Buddhism, ‘bardo’ is a transitional state between life, death and reincarnation. The soul rehashes the past life in anticipation of its reboot. In such a state is the famous Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker Silverio Gacho, the alter ego of director Alejandro Iñárritu in feature film Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths – indeed yes, a pretentious title. It is a virtuosically designed, self-righteous self-examination that is reminiscent of Fellini’s self-parody 8½ and to Gaspard Noé’s cinematic end-of-life care Enter the Void.
Director Silverio wanders in Bardo around in memories and dreams: about his father and mother, family and success. Big and intimate issues tumble over each other. His uprooting, his split between Mexican pride and the need for recognition by gringos. It is about culture of violence and narcotic terror, conquistador Hernán Cortés enthroned on a lurid pyramid of Indian corpses. The intimate trauma of baby Mateo, who only lived for 24 hours, turns out to be a leitmotiv. After birth, a doctor pushes him back into mother’s vulva: humor that Freudians can sink their teeth into.
Threatening talk show
The intentions of Bardo are immediately clear: in the desert a shadow lifts itself from the ground with great leaps until it flies. We are in dreamland. Two-time Oscar winner Iñárritu enchants us there with beautiful scenes that flow into each other with dream logic. Silverio wades into his living room via a flooded subway car, watches a comic battle with the American ambassador, rambles through a hectic TV studio to a menacing talk show. Voices from another world can be heard in the sometimes familiar, sometimes disturbing inner world of his family. Something is seriously wrong with Silverio. We won’t find out until much later.
It’s actually fantastic that tens of millions of dollars have been invested in such a personal, unruly art house project. With Alejandro Iñárritu, Netflix hopes to repeat the performance of his friend Alfonso Cuarón in the coming Oscar season: his Romachildhood memories in black and white, won three Oscars from ten nominations in 2019. Bardo that won’t work. In Venice, the film press put the prestige film through the meat grinder in September, after which Iñárritu cut out 21 minutes in shock. The current version still lasts 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Too long, pretentious, narcissistic, was the criticism Bardo at its premiere in Venice. A director who digs into his own psyche was a novelty in 1963, when Fellini introduced it in 8½. Resembles that movie classic Bardo sometimes referred to: with humpa music, a death march, a tender farewell to a deceased father. You also suspect that Iñárritu is after his glorious double whammy Birdman (2015, four Oscars) and The Revenants (2016, three Oscars) felt just like Fellini did at the time. World hit La Dolce Vita in 1960 led to temporary paralysis: how do you deal with so much success?
Fellini broke in 8½ his creative block itself becomes the theme: alter ego Marcello Mastroianni, as star director Guido Anselmi, gets stuck in a science fiction film. He barely has a script and doesn’t really believe in it, but the circus has already started and the producer built a very expensive movie set from a missile base. Dragged along in the maelstrom, Anselmi flees in dreams about his youth and the (many) women in his life.
8½ came out when the French ‘author theory’ had just broken through and fitted in wonderfully well. According to that idea, the vision of the film director is all-determining: the big man, the general on the set. Also dissecting yourself in the film makes you the ultimate author. 8½ was jubilantly received and inspired many imitations: in 2012, directors found it in the global Sight and Soundpoll still ranks as the fourth greatest film of all time. No wonder. “Make films about yourself, that is what every director wants,” I heard Martin Koolhoven say on TV this week.
However, Fellini’s followers often lack something 8½ so delightful: self-mockery. Guido Anselmi is a joking figure, his dream about a harem in which he alternates between spoiled Nero, baby or lion tamer remains a hilarious parody of the male ego – Fellini’s ego.
Iñárritu has the content of 8½ split in two in his oeuvre. His movie Birdman was previously about the creative process: a (stage) director tries to get a grip on crew, actor egos and his own ambitions. Bardo is now about the director’s ego. That soon threatens to become ludicrous and sentimental: a love letter to himself, I read somewhere. Yet it is missing Bardo certainly not humor and self-relativization. Opponents repeatedly point out the hypocrisy and contradictions of Iñárritu’s alter ego Silverio. During a swinging fiesta in his honor and glory, ‘frenemy’ Luis verbally fillets the entire film in terms that real critics can easily copy. It would be a tangle of pretentious associations about private life, politics and cosmos that merely shed light on the director’s midlife crisis, according to Luis.
In the film, director Silverio silences the critic with a short wave of his hand. Bardo takes place in his brain, where his will is law. What we see is Silverio’s comatose self-image: a sincere family man, a tragic figure full of love and unresolved grief who can look back on a successful life.
Due to the completely subjective form of Bardo Iñárritu can hardly maintain an ironic distance from his alter ego. He falsely relies on us viewers ironically decoding his character, I suspect. But viewers don’t do that: they see what they see. Then becomes Bardo an ego trip and it doesn’t help that Iñárritu mixes minor suffering with major historical themes, as if they all have the same weight. And then a cinematic will of a 59-year-old also feels a bit like Trimalchio’s dinner from Petronius’ Satyricon – also filmed by Fellini, by the way. In it, a vulgar Roman rich man stages his own mock funeral, with followers stroking his ego with treacle and exaggerated mourning.
That does everything Bardo shortage. Iñárritu’s self-mockery comes across as bad, but if you step over it, you end up with a film full of ambition and unforgettable images that strikes bizarre, sometimes disconcerting emotional chords. A train wreck of great beauty and originality at the intersection of life and death.View an overview of our movie reviews
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 16, 2022