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'Bardo' Review: Iñárritu goes through the cracked looking glass in Netflix's surreal epic

The director of "Birdman" and "The Revenant" returns to his native Mexico to confront personal and national legacies.
Credit: Netflix

SAN ANTONIO — As a visually distinct movie that transports audiences to another world crafted by the personal fascinations of its director hits theaters this weekend, another visually distinct movie that tugs audiences to the cosmic foundations of a single man’s world constructed through the personal reckonings of its director lands on Netflix. 

To be sure, there are moments in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” that have just as much to gain from being watched on the big screen as “Avatar: The Way of Water,” right down to a haunting urban stroll that culminates in one more metatextual fold for a film that’s already origami figure’d itself into being the “Birdman” and “The Revenant” director’s most formally audacious work (and certainly his most ambitious effort this side of getting Leonardo DiCaprio an elusive Oscar). But to watch the 160-minute “Bardo” at home – close the blinds, put your phone away, take a leap of faith – is to see this flawed but fascinating film about the amorphousness of home on its level. 

At the same time, part of the stupefying wonder and melodic madness of “Bardo” is figuring out what level the movie is inhabiting on a scene-to-scene basis. Needing all of one shot to establish its magical-realist bent, the film plays fast and loose with structure, and even more irreverently with tone. Watching “Bardo” is a bit like walking backwards on a treadmill; the severity of individual scenes tends to hit after the fact, and you’ll occasionally stumble when it comes to why you’re seeing something even if you’re fully engaged with what it is you’re seeing, however surreal. Case in point: The protagonist and his wife reflecting on their newborn's death, a sobering conversation that recontextualizes an earlier sequence in which the baby, diagnosing the world as “too f***ed up,” opts to return to from whence he came. 

It’s as patently ridiculous to watch as those words are to read, I promise you. But for a disquieting character study about a man operating primarily in hindsight while forging ahead through the wonderland of his mind, it’s also the first sign that this movie is most comfortable in its discordance. It’s constantly entering and exiting the implications of its own making, and the seams are rarely easy to spot. 

Where “Birdman” achieved both notoriety and acclaim for how it was made to appear as though it was shot in one continuous take, “Bardo” feels destined to do the same in the way it surfs one man’s stream of consciousness. The man is Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican-born journalist living in the U.S. who returns with his family to be honored for having received a legacy-confirming distinction from colleagues above the border. What awaits are a series of interrogations about Silverio’s role as a storyteller, the alleged abandonment of his native Mexico, the paradox of trying to document a world that changes “with every day, with every tweet.”

And, admittedly, about several dozen other things too. Unfolding not through clarity of narrative about Silverio’s life but rather along an arc of reckonings amid his success, “Bardo” oscillates between breathless barrages of ideological frustrations and deep inhales of impressive cinematic execution. Memories of personal and national history are staged as mesmerizing set pieces, while details from various moments in Silverio’s life dance, sometimes literally, onto the present-day stage. Iñárritu's obsession with prolonged oners returns, but this time they emphasize the sheer escalation of mood – whether it be excitement, passion or anxiety – that tugs Silverio away from examining the roots of his instability, meaningful introspection be damned. Eugenio Caballero’s dynamic production design and Darius Khondji’s enigmatic cinematography conspire to do away with any suggestion that Silverio’s reflections are ever firmly grounded. 

The film is a visual powerhouse, and for better or for worse that amplifies its inscrutability. For as much as “Bardo” (written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone) can seem enamored with the ostensible superficiality of questions it tramples home with the force of a stampeding army, it might be more so about Silverio recognizing – through the escapism of an imagination that can entrap him in an instant – that his efforts to reconcile with himself might always be futile. 

The same can be said of Iñárritu, which I think is where the rub of his film – and the viewer’s ability to find their own investment in it – lies. Not for nothing is this movie about the dissonance between countries and cultures his first Spanish-language film since attaining Academy Awards success. Intentionally or otherwise, the key question that arises in “Bardo” is whether Iñárritu can avoid the same occupational, spiritual and stylistic pitfalls of hypocrisy that Silverio is himself accused of tumbling into. Or, rather, if Iñárritu should even be expected to in a movie of such sheer indulgence that practically every scene is drawn out longer than it probably should be, every outburst finding the director confronting that which he has been criticized of. 

I wouldn’t blame you for not wanting to spend two hours and 40 minutes of your time watching an Oscar-winning filmmaker lament whether it’s all been worthwhile when the sheer complexity of those reflections as we see them renders the question moot. But I also don’t get the sense that Iñárritu is out to absolve himself of an inability to reckon with whatever cost has come of his creating art. It’s far easier to accuse him of being unable to distinguish parody from profundity than endeavoring to do so ourselves, to point our finger at him before considering “Bardo” as a cinematic hall of mirrors through which the director – one of our most accomplished today, no matter what his birthplace – is trying to figure out what’s next. That the movie’s lens is so immeasurably, exhaustively big means the cracks in it, inevitably, will be too. It might not be until his next movie that we discover what he found in the fragments.

"Bardo" is rated R for language throughout, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. It's now streaming on Netflix. Runtime: 2 hours, 39 minutes. 

Starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu; written by Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone




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