What can you say about a man’s life? That’s been the question posed to millions for eons. Whether it’s a eulogy, an obituary, a biography or something else, how do you sum up the totality of someone’s existence? That wide gamut of emotions, a lifetime of experiences, their passions, their grievances… it’s too much. Do you take a snapshot of a specific moment that represents their whole being? Or do you revisit multiple moments that shaped the person that others came to know? “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” attempts to encapsulate a fictional character by examining the days and mindsets leading up to an event. Director Alejandro Iñárritu (who wrote the script with Nicolás Giacobone) mines the magical realist traditions of his native Mexico to look at the identity of this man in a (semi-autobiographical) film that occasionally meanders too much but delivers such impressive highs that it’s worth the momentary lapse in vigor.
Silverio Gacho (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a Mexican journalist-turned-documentary filmmaker who is to be honored by an American journalist organization for his recent movie. As he prepares to give a speech at the ceremony, he reminisces about (and experiences) the highs and lows of his marriage with his wife (Griselda Siciliani), the relationships with his son (Íker Sánchez Solano) and daughter (Ximena Lamadrid), as well as the relationships that he has with his parents, friends and colleagues. Over those few days, he finds himself plunged into contemplations about his life and his country, uncertain what any of it means.
I have not read any other reviews of “Bardo,” but I am going to guess that the vast majority reference Federico Fellini’s 1963 film “8 ½,” in which a filmmaker reflects on his own life as well as his passion for filmmaking in one broad overarching story with many asides and vignettes where the fantastic meld with the mundane to try to best show how we all experience living. This is very much the same mold in which Iñárritu is working, telling a fairly basic story of a handful of days but jumbling up moments and realities, and indulging in numerous flights of fantasy that end up shining a light on all of his life. Just like with Fellini’s movie, there will be reams of paper, mountains of online real estate and hours of videos dedicated to dissecting all the references to paintings, films, music and more that Iñárritu incorporates into Silverio’s journey. The parallels are unavoidable and therefore a bit unfair to “Bardo,” as “8 ½” is a masterpiece that places this new film in its shadow. But Iñárritu is far too well-versed in the history and language of cinema to not expect such comparisons, so he knew the inevitable pairing would come. He still dared to undertake a similar project — an act of bravado that pays off with a title that almost rivals that Italian classic.
Iñárritu has always been a bold filmmaker who loves a gimmick. His earliest works (including “21 Grams” and “Babel”) all used non-linear storytelling and branching narratives to highlight interconnectedness between people. There was the illusion of the sustained single shot of “Birdman” and then the grueling method realism of “The Revenant.” Truthfully, I’ve never been a fan of his work after “Amores Perros,” finding the other interconnected stories annoyingly didactic and boringly repetitive. “Birdman” and “Revenant” had an impressive flair with their daring productions but felt too much like the cinematic equivalent of a masturbatory guitar solo that is all flash and no soul. Imagine my surprise that the movie that appears most personal, along with being incredibly long and spectacularly weird (though totally approachable), ends up becoming my favorite thing that Iñárritu has ever done.
“Bardo” is brimming with all-timer moments that pull strongly from Fellini and the magical realism tradition of Latin America, and is also reminiscent of works by Terry Gilliam and Roy Andersson (among so many others). There is a multitude of astounding visual moments that show a powerful imagination and sense of aesthetics but are made important by the humanity that shines through them. The passion of a lover, the sorrow of loss, the tension of raising children and more are all beautifully portrayed through a mixture of natural dialogue, pitch-perfect acting and this imagery that poetically mirrors the sentiments being explored. And while there are many instances when “Bardo” gets very meta, those asides don’t feel like a hollow flex as much as a depiction of the ouroboros of our minds, creating never-ending cycles of thoughts that feed on themselves while continuing their unstoppable trains.
One of the most prevalent themes in “Bardo” is the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Silverio sees himself as a fierce citizen of each country, but rarely both; that dual citizenship (and identity) creates a tension analogous to the encroachment and blockades between the nations themselves. Though it’s admittedly not a topic on which I can speak personally, Iñárritu deftly shows the Mexican history and culture that permeate Silverio’s soul (even subconsciously) but also that his status as an “outside observer” allows him to equally criticize and defend these aspects depending on the audience. He is able to switch his beliefs and sentiments depending on who is listening, which also makes him feel like he belongs to neither place or people. James Joyce said he had to leave Ireland to write about it, and it appears that Silverio (and, by extension, Iñárritu) feels similarly. While Iñárritu still resides in Mexico City, his travels around the world and many dealings in the United States have informed this portrait of the artist as an advanced-aged man.
The main detraction of “Bardo” is that there are moments where this celebration of life, in all its ugliness and beauty, feels too lifeless. They are rare, but scenes go on too long or the same points are made too often, draining the impact of the otherwise spectacular visual or writing. A handful of sequences that should be brimming with vibrance end up being muted and feeling forced — a retreat to the showy posturing of Iñárritu’s other works. However, there aren’t enough of these lulls and miscalculations to severely mar “Bardo,” though its 159-minute runtime is felt most when they pop up.
So, the question remains: Is “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” a worthy tribute to a person? Or is the clue in the title, and there can only be a fraction of moments and realities that can be known about someone, even a fabricated amalgam like Silverio? It’s hard to say, but the exploration is the point of Iñárritu’s brilliant film, which uses lush imagery, poignant moments and haunting emotional honesty to tell a compelling story that audiences will revisit for many years to come.
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu