There aren’t many living directors who can match the career of Alejandro G Iñárritu. His last film, The Revenant, won him the Oscar for Best Director. The one before that, Birdman, bagged him Best Director and Best Picture. And his earlier films, going back to his debut, Amores Perros, in 2000, played a key role in the resurgence of Mexican cinema as an international force. With all that on his CV, he’s certainly earnt the right to make any film he wants to – even a film that’s supremely self-indulgent and self-important. To put it another way, he’s earnt the right to make Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.
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Named after the Buddhist term for the state between death and rebirth, Bardo is Iñárritu’s version of Fellini’s 1963 surrealist comedy drama 81/2. Bardo has autobiographical elements, yet it’s a brazen homage not just to Fellini but to Bergman, Malick and even Monty Python. It’s sincere and sentimental, yet it’s proudly postmodern and phantasmagorical. It’s a grand statement on life, the universe and everything, from the bloody history of Mexico to the personal grief of losing an infant. It runs for almost three hours, but it feels like it runs for about 17.
Its haggard hero is Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a handsome, sad-eyed, grey-bearded documentary film-maker aged around 60 (Inárritu himself is 59). After 20 years of success in Los Angeles, he is about to be presented with a prestigious lifetime achievement award from a US journalism association. But first he’s making a rare return visit to Mexico, where he is due to appear on a chat show, reconnect with the friends and relations he left behind, attend a raucous party in his honour, and generally make the most of these handy opportunities to ponder his past. Some people aren’t sure whether he deserves the adulation, though – Silverio included. How can he be a Mexican luminary when he has spent so much of his working life in the United States? How can he speak for the poor and oppressed when he has such a comfortable life with his beautiful wife (Griselda Siciliani) and children? And how can he accept an award with the very establishment figures his documentaries have always chastised?
Not that Iñárritu’s comedy drama is quite as straightforward as those questions suggest. There are sequences that consist of ordinary, slightly tedious conversations about politics and the media. But these are interwoven with big-budget, lavishly surreal episodes in which a train fills with water, a man flies effortlessly over a desert, and Silverio steps into his own childhood memories. The naturalistic bits will sometimes take a surreal turn, such as when his mouth stops moving but his voice keeps going; and the surreal bits will sometimes be revealed as sequences in a “docufictional” film that he is making. Remember the meta wackiness of Birdman? Remember the gloomy portentousness of Biutiful and 21 Grams? Put them together, and you’ll know whether you want to see Bardo.