Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first film set and shot in his native Mexico since he turned heads more than two decades ago with Amores Perros is as long and windy as its title. “It’s pretentious and pointlessly oneiric,” scoffs a fellow Mexican who has found success in crass commercialism rather than art and truth, dismissing the semi-autobiographical protagonist’s work. Iñárritu seems to be cheekily preempting his critics. However accurate you find that assessment, the epic existential comedy, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, is also a work of exacting craftsmanship, shifting with beguiling fluidity between dream and reality with ravishing visuals, shot on 65mm by the great cinematographer Darius Khondji.
At three overstuffed hours, the Netflix feature is a lot of movie. While there’s pleasure in surrendering to its languid rhythms and sinuous narrative detours — I was never bored — it doesn’t escape charges of self-indulgence or derivativeness, borrowing from All That Jazz and The Great Beauty, as well as a key influence on both those films, Fellini’s Otto e Mezzo.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
The Bottom Line
A homecoming odyssey in a tragicomic key.
You might wish Iñárritu had tightened his focus, as his friend and colleague Alfonso Cuarón did with his childhood recollection, Roma. But this is deeply personal, immersive cinema that evinces much soul-searching, about both individual and national cultural identity, creeping mortality, the price of acclaim, the conflicted heart of the returning expatriate, the porousness of time and the seductive labyrinth of memory. Perhaps most revealing is the corrosive consideration of living and working in a country that has shown such cold imperialistic arrogance toward his own.
Co-written with Nicolás Giacobone, Iñárritu’s collaborator on Biutiful and Birdman, the script reimagines the director as Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a famed Mexican journalist and documentary maker living in Los Angeles for the past 20 years and due to receive a prestigious international award in Mexico City. He will be the first of his countrymen presented with that honor.
It opens with the shadow of an unseen man running across a vast expanse of scrubby desert, lifting off into flight, perhaps a nod to Birdman. That image returns at the end, this time clearly visible as Silverio, wandering alone in a land that will always have meaning for him.
The absurdist key is established in the scene that follows, in which Khondji’s camera floats down a hospital corridor to find Silverio awaiting the birth of his son. But doctors inform the child’s mother, Lucia (Griselda Siciliani), that he doesn’t want to come out into this broken world, proceeding to stuff the baby back inside her. That infant reappears at inopportune moments, notably during oral sex. It gradually emerges that he died just one day after being born, a tragedy that still pains Silverio and Lucia, as well as their grown children, teenage Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) and 20something Camila (Ximena Lamadrid).
While news reports inform of a U.S. government-approved plan by Amazon to purchase the state of Baja, Silverio prepares for the award ceremony and its related publicity. Or rather, he mostly avoids it as mixed feelings about being back in his home country overwhelm him.
At Mexico City’s Chapultapec Castle, the U.S. ambassador (Jay O. Sanders) glosses over Silverio’s pointed comments about the stacked odds of the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s, prompting the documentarian to conjure a full-scale recreation of the battle that took place there, with uniformed cadets in bad period wigs. The use of a brass band in this surreal vignette is one of many elements that recall Fellini. (Elsewhere, the score by Bryce Dessner of The National and Iñárritu tends to function as atmospheric enhancement to the visuals.)
Mexican history comes alive in an equally unconventional though more somber way later on, as Silverio wanders the capital’s streets — initially empty, then bustling and cosmopolitan — and turns a corner to find desaparecidos dropping to the pavement all around him. Eventually, he comes upon a mountain of the tangled, naked corpses of Indigenous Mexicans, which he scrambles up, encountering Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador responsible for the fall of the Aztec Empire, at the top.
These reflections on the brutalized history of Mexico, along with its spirituality and culture, are freely interwoven with evidence of the population’s ongoing struggles. Recurring scenes show mass migration north across the border, with Silverio in journalistic mode interviewing his fellow countrymen fleeing poverty, crime or violence, an affecting exodus seeking hope on “the other side.”
These snippets form a sprawling mosaic, but the film is most engaging when it builds extended set-pieces that fold gracefully from one development into the next. The most intoxicating of them is the festive award reception, at which old friends, family and professional colleagues gather for mescal and dancing as Khondji’s camera snakes its dexterous way through the crowd.
On the terrace, Silverio gets into a disagreement with his old friend, the aforementioned trash TV purveyor, disgruntled because the illustrious guest bailed without warning on a scheduled live appearance on his show. He accuses Silverio of failing to keep his ego out of his self-glorifying work, while Silverio responds by calling him a mediocre flag-waving nationalist — vulgar, stupid and proud of it.
The honoree then skips sharing the stage with a government dignitary and slips away into the men’s room, where he meets the dead father who was never able to express his pride in his son while he was alive. This refreshes the old man’s advice to him: “Take a swig of success, swish it around and spit it out, otherwise it will poison you.” He continues through another doorway, down another darkened corridor to his childhood bedroom, where masturbatory teen fantasies about a TV variety star return, followed by a visit with his elderly mother.
There’s a hypnotic quality to this freewheeling central section, a sustained charge that falters in some of the more prolix passages around it. Some of Silverio’s self-interrogation — about his fear of dying and leaving behind a legacy of meaningless work — feels familiar from too many artistic memoirs.
But there’s a soulful aspect to Silverio’s consideration of what it cost him and his family to leave their country behind. Calling him a “first-class immigrant,” Lorenzo prods at his father’s pangs of guilt about his privilege, evident when the family housekeeper is denied access to accompany them to the beach at a ritzy private resort. The bitter irony of Silverio’s relatively cushy existence is hammered home in a literal but effective scene at Los Angeles airport, where a Latino border agent informs him that his resident status doesn’t afford him the right to call America home.
The final section gazes forward in time to an outcome that finds Iñárritu — or Silverio — facing the inevitable, overcome with wonder, confusion and regret. “Success has been my biggest failure,” he confesses in one telling moment that fits with the ambivalent nature of a film whose skepticism toward what constitutes truth is inherent in its subtitle.
Audiences’ staying power for this meandering existential exploration of personal, professional and national identity — as tragicomic as it is rueful — will vary, depending on their interest in the artist or their appetite for the film’s aesthetic beauty. Even at the end of three hours, Silverio remains a somewhat elusive figure, though Giménez Cacho (seen recently in Zama and Memoria), with his lanky frame and saddened eyes, proves an eternally curious guide, responding in kind to the warmth and spontaneity of the family scenes.