"Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" is a profound, moving, imaginative and ambitious cinematic "docu-fiction." It is also, arguably, one of the best films of the year. Alejandro G. Iñárritu's movie is an epic paradox about "everything that never was." The film is "a chronicle of uncertainties" as it explores issues of identity, nationality, immigration, privilege, aging, creativity, fantasy, success, family and the meaning of home, among other topics.
"Bardo" is very much wrapped up in Mexican nationalism.
The plot is pretty thin for a 159-minute film (cut down by 20 minutes after festival screenings) but the emotions run as deep as the philosophizing about life. Silverio Gacho (Daniel Giménez Cacho) a Mexican American journalist-turned-documentarian, returns home to Mexico shortly before he is about to receive a prestigious award. He sees friends and family for celebrations and considers his life as he grapples with his identity and the speech he has to give at the ceremony.
This is all just a framework to hang a series of set pieces that reflect on Silverio's internal conflict. He has a serious case of imposter syndrome, and it stems, no doubt, from his identity crisis about being a Mexican in America. He longs for a homeland he does not want to live in, and he criticizes his mother country from the safety of his adopted one. One of the film's best jokes is an announcement, heard twice, that Amazon has purchased Baja California.
"Bardo" is very much wrapped up in Mexican nationalism, from the red, green, and white credits (the colors of Mexico's flag) to discussion of the Mexican American War and the colonization and deaths that came out of that. (Cue soldiers in blonde wigs storming the castle.) The city is described as headache-inducing because of the altitude and pollution, but Silverio also acknowledges, "How beautiful this ugly city is."
Hernán Cortés makes an appearance in one particularly surreal sequence where Silverio climbs a mountain of naked or near-naked bodies to have a discussion about deities and ideas. And there are several scenes of migration — from Silverio's documentary about Mexican's leaving home for America, to an overplayed scene of Silverio returning to America and being insulted by the customs agent who insists Silverio, with his 0-1 Visa is not American.
Almost every frame in "Bardo" brims with magical realist touches starting with the hypnotic opening sequence where a shadow in a desert suddenly flies and takes viewers with it.
As the film's title suggests, Silverio is in a state of limbo — between life and death, between fiction and reality, between Mexico and America. Iñárritu masterfully captures this flux state of being "here" but also "not here," being present and absent, visible and invisible at the same time. Almost every frame in "Bardo" brims with magical realist touches starting with the hypnotic opening sequence where a shadow in a desert suddenly flies and takes viewers with it.
The film offers a surreal trip including a strange scene on public transportation where Silverio swims through the water flooding the tram car to a fabulous dance scene done in slow-motion to a stripped-down version of David Bowie's "Let's Dance." Each of these pieces builds towards creating a fuller picture of Silverio's rich life.
Yes, "Bardo" may be Iñárritu's take on Fellini's "8 ½," but it dazzles with fantastic camerawork by Darius Khondji, and a moving performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho, who conveys so much pain and melancholy by staring blankly, or energy when he is at his most manic.
An early scene has Silverio's wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) giving birth and the baby, Mateo, wants to go back inside "because the world is too f**ked up." It is a prescient, comedic moment, but it reveals a real tragedy; Silverio and Lucia's son died 30 hours after birth. A later scene of them burying their baby in the ocean is poignant and oddly beautiful. It, too, is tinged with magical realism as the "ashes" are a tiny baby that makes the sad moment all the more heartbreaking.
"Bardo" is full of touching scenes like this that have a cumulative emotional potency. An exchange Silverio has with his father in a bathroom during a party has Silverio shrunk to child-size. The men talk about what it means to be a good father, and Silverio confesses, "Success has been my biggest failure," suggesting his career has kept him from knowing his two grown children, Camila (Ximena Lamadrid of "Who Killed Sara") and Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano). But Silverio, while hard on himself, tells his father something deep and powerful that shows, even at the height of his existential crisis, he is thoughtful and introspective.
In contrast, a discussion Silverio has with Lorenzo — who questions the appropriateness of his father making documentaries about poor immigrants who have a vastly different life experience from theirs — reflect both father's and son's privilege. The film is self-aware, and that is why a tender scene, in which Lorenzo tells a story about his fish that has a comic punchline, is followed by an emotional sucker punch. Likewise, when Silverio and his daughter have a heart-to-heart (in a gorgeous, exclusive pool) she tells him that what he thinks is best for her may not be best for her. A speech she gives later in the film is also both funny and insightful.
The dozens of affecting moments and the scenes among the family members are the most heartfelt. A visit Silverio has with his aging mother is incredibly poignant as it questions memory, reality and truth. It asks: Do we believe what is real, or what we want to remember as real? And, ultimately, does it matter, especially if it brings peace of mind?
Many of the scenes are ideas that popped into Silverio's busy head. Iñárritu floats from moment to moment through the dreamlike "Bardo." (The editing can look up to the sky one minute and be on a plane the next.) Iñárritu employs a fish-eye lens to distort space, and features several breathtaking tracking shots, such as one in a TV studio or another as Silverio walks through the empty streets of a city that becomes more populous, and then more surreal.
Many scenes in "Bardo" are dreams. One has Silverio on a talk show hosted by his friend and former colleague, Luis (Franciso Rubio) who humiliates him in front of the live studio audience, telling embarrassing stories about Silverio or chastising him for his success. In reality, Silverio did not show up for the TV interview segment, which may be worse. At a party the two men have a verbal confrontation where they tell each other what they really think, and it is gripping, because both men are right, as are their observations about fame and friendship.
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There is more, much more, to "Bardo," which may require multiple viewings to catch all the ideas stuffed into it. There are probably several Easter eggs which will be fun to discover.
Ultimately, Iñárritu's film espouses messages that "Life is a series of idiotic images . . . a mishmash of pointless scenes . . . a brief series of senseless events . . . surrender to it." "Bardo" is sure to be seen as pretentious and self-indulgent — and how can an existential film about a filmmaker not be? The film is sure to have its share of detractors, but it is also among the most remarkable, risky and fearless work to grace screens this year. Surrender to it. It is extraordinary.
"Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" is streaming on Netflix starting Dec.16.
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