‘Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths’ Review: Alejandro G. Iñárritu Has Made a Felliniesque Epic of Soulful Midlife Navel-Gazing

·9-min read

“Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” is a movie longer than its title, and maybe even more pretentious. It’s the first film that Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”) has made in his native Mexico in 22 years, and you feel, in every scene, the sweat and ardor of his ambition. He wants to make an epic statement — about life and death, fiction and reality, history and imagination. He wants to make a confessional autobiographical fantasia about the fears and dreams hidden behind his façade as a famous and celebrated film director. He also wants to complement and compete with his fellow filmmaker and transplanted countryman Alfonso Cuarón, who in 2018 returned to Mexico and drew on his own life to make “Roma,” the world’s artiest Oscar-bait movie, getting it bankrolled by the deep pockets of Netflix. (“Bardo” is, if possible, an even artier Oscar-bait movie, also bankrolled by the deep pockets of Netflix.)

More than any of that, Iñárritu wants to create an onscreen hero who, for all his scruffy relatability, is less a conventional dramatic character than a walking conduit, a figure who becomes a projection of anything the filmmaker wants him to be. Iñárritu fulfills most of these goals, in part because he’s such a fantastic technician — a cinematic dream-poet of shifting landscapes, many of them interior. When he fills a room with sand, it’s no designer fantasy; you feel like the characters are walking on the moon. So why is “Bardo,” for all its skill, reach-for-the-stars aspiration, and majestic sweep, such a windy, confounding, and — okay, I’ll just say it — monotonous experience? The movie is full of good things, but it’s three hours long and mostly it’s full of itself.

More from Variety

The title is a Tibetan word that refers to the Buddhist concept of a transitional floating state between death and rebirth. “Bardo” opens along a vast stretch of desert with the image of the hero (or at least his shadow) leaping and floating. The rest of the movie unfolds in a kind of spiritual-emotional limbo — 174 minutes of interrogating, contemplating, imagining, anticipating. Our scrappy, lost-in-the-wilderness-of-his-own-soul hero is Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a renowned Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker, about 60 years old, who has been living with his family, for the last 20 of those years, in Los Angeles. But now, on the eve of the moment when he’s going to receive a prestigious international journalism award in L.A., he and the family have returned to Mexico, where he is taking stock of…everything.

He was originally a TV newscaster, but stepped away from that role when he realized that he was a peddling a commercially packaged version of reality. He wanted to dig deeper, to speak the truths it was getting harder to say out loud in a Mexico ruled by increasingly corrupt powers, whether it was forces within the government or the lawless dictators who run the drug cartels. So he became an independent reporter and found acclaim in doing so. The movie, however, is not a celebration of Silverio’s crusade.

In the film’s press notes, Iñárritu says that Silverio “eventually realizes that reality is pure fiction.” The premise of “Bardo” is that Silverio ditched a fake reality to uncover a deeper reality — but that in doing so, he came to think of the reality he was writing about…as more real than it was. This is an acid-trip insight. And now, as Silverio stands back from his life, he realizes that existence itself is a kind of mythology, something he is holding onto for dear life. He has come to an end point, no longer believing in his mission. But what does he believe in? The search for that answer is the movie’s journey.

Are you bored yet? If any of this sounds familiar, it should, because “Bardo” is the latest movie to mimic the form and spirit of “8 1⁄2,” the 1963 art-house landmark in which Federico Fellini made an entire movie about a film director who no longer knew why he was making a movie, so he spent the entire movie dithering about it. “8 1⁄2” is one of the most celebrated films in film history, to the point that it long ago ceased being just a movie. It’s now a genre — the existential circus, built around an isolated, self-reflective great-man celebrity creator who is stuck in a midlife crisis of identity and imagination, and as a result spends the movie not so much doing things as withdrawing from the universe of doing things, contemplating his relationship to the world, meditating on life, love, morality, pleasure, and death like a Hamlet of the media age, asking over and over, in a hundred different ways, “What does it all mean?”

I confess that I’m one of those people — we’re rare, but we do exist — who can’t stand “8 1⁄2.” I think it’s an unholy dud, with a self-adoring performance by Marcello Mastroianni and some of the worst post-syncing in any Italian movie of the period. But let’s leave that aside. The movies that have been made in the shadow of “8 1⁄2” don’t necessarily duplicate all its sins. Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” is an exuberant showbiz chronicle (at least, until it succumbs to Felliniesque solipsism in its last third), and I actually think that Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories” is a seriously underrated film. “Bardo” has a spatial luminosity and flow to it that Fellini might envy. It’s trying for something one is intensely sympathetic to — a portrait of our collective lost faith, even among those who have tried to do the right thing.

The reason, I think, that it fails to be an engaging movie is that there’s something about its star, Daniel Giménez Cacho, that doesn’t ignite. Cacho is a good actor, but he plays Silverio with a hangdog diffidence, a quality of disarming and, at times, almost annoying mildness. Bearded and morose, without seeming like he’s got a whole lot to say, he’s like Alan Rickman’s dull brother with a touch of Ben Kingsley at his mealiest. His Silverio is passive, a reactor more than a seize-the-day actor, and this has the effect of making the story of his vaunted journalistic career seem an anvil of apathy that’s hanging around the movie’s neck. On some primal level, you never buy that this man was a fearless reporter; his conviction is asserted more than it’s demonstrated.

Early on, there’s a remarkable sequence in which he appears on a TV interview show hosted by his old Eight O’Clock News comrade, Luis (Francisco Rubio), who is now a sleazy tabloid ratings whore. Luis interrogates him relentlessly, castigating him for crimes of elitism and hypocrisy, and Silverio just sits there, squirming and taking it, not saying a word. The scene turns out to be a fantasy; in reality, Silverio ghosted Luis and didn’t even bother to show up for the interview (a decision that will come into play later on).

But that scene turns out to be a metaphor for how the whole movie works. A lot of people question Silverio’s career, starting with his wife, Camilla (Ximena Lamadrid), who sees through his false humility and other forms of neurotic armor, or his 17-year-old son, the very Americanized Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano), who is less than awed by his father’s achievements. It’s suggested that in his very celebrity as a reporter, Silverio supported the American power structure rather than choosing to rock that boat. Iñárritu has staged “Bardo” with a kind of grandiose masochism, which means that Silverio doesn’t really defend himself. He takes all the criticism like a pin cushion. He’s too busy wandering through the landscape of his memories, fantasies, and illusions.

It’s part of Iñárritu’s technological bravura that he weaves those planes of experience together with a seamless cunning that makes life itself seem a hallucination. There are history lessons that come to life before our eyes — about the Mexican-American War and the atrocities committed by Hernán Cortés, the 16th-century Spanish conquistador of Mexico. And there’s a searing sequence from one of Silverio’s documentaries in which a drug lord, sitting in his orange jumpsuit in prison, talks about how it’s people like him, and not the forces of civility, that hold sway over the new generation. It’s chilling, and one of the few gripping scenes in the film, because (for lack of a better word) it’s real.

Some will say that the movie’s big, sprawling, 45-minute party sequence, in which Silverio is feted on the eve of his award by an army of old friends and colleagues, is every bit as gripping. It could certainly be taught in film schools, since it has the kind of look-ma-no-hands, I-did-this-in-one-shot virtuosity that sweeps you along, even as you’re grateful for the moments when the dialogue (oh, that!) takes on a life of its own. In Fellini’s movies, life was a circus, and today, life is a swirling EDM tequila party. But I’m not sure either one leaves you feeling any less empty the morning after.

There are two surrealist motifs that punctuate the movie. One is a tragic piece of magical realism: Silverio’s wife gives birth to their third child, but he snaps back into her womb, and continues to live there — a symbol of the fact that he died in infancy. And there’s a recurring image of Silverio on a subway train, holding a plastic bag full of axolotl fish that spill out, water and all, onto the floor. That, too, turns out to be a harbinger of death. “Bardo,” in the end, is a meditation on death, with Iñárritu, who is 59, taking a deep dive into imagining the experience. There are moments when that’s haunting. But only moments. Even as the film begins, it feels as if Silverio has reached the end of something. He is past reality, past the belief that he could make a difference, past life itself. Sorry, but I’m not sure that’s someone a movie audience wants to hang out with.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.