It’s easy to dismiss Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths as a pretentious and overly complicated autobiographical exercise. After all, there’s something inherently pretentious in wanting to showcase one’s own experience without a deeply significant reason to do so. But upon close inspection, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s latest film is a beautiful intellectual essay that uses the director’s life to meditate on themes that range from fatherhood to Mexican politics. Its surrealism and non-linear structure won’t be for everyone, but in conjunction with its impeccable production design, Bardo is an enigmatic experience that explores what it feels like to live suspended between two worlds.
The film’s titled after a concept in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to the existence between two lives on earth, a moment where a soul finds itself in limbo. This suspension between two worlds is central to the plot of Bardo, which premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival and will be hitting Netflix on December 16th.
The story follows Silverio Gacho (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a famous Mexican documentarist who returns to Mexico after being named the recipient of a prestigious journalistic award for achievements he accomplished mostly in Los Angeles, away from his home country. The trip catalyzes an existential crisis that forces Silverio to confront both his personal history and that of his country and to grapple with the meaning of being stuck between two sides of the border.
Lives that merge unto each other.
Cacho anchors the film as Silverio, infusing the character with frenetic grief and melancholy and elevated further by performances from Griselda Siclianni as his wife Lucia and Iker Sánchez Solano and Ximena Lamadrid as his children Lorenzo and Camila. While the characters are fictional, it doesn’t take much to realize that there is a strong autobiographical component in Bardo.
There are clear parallels between Iñárritu and Silverio. They both have conducted successful careers in the U.S after immigrating from Mexico and have been actively criticized for being “disconnected” from their country’s affairs. In addition, they both have struggled with the loss of their infant sons. Iñárritu has been open about what happened to his son Luciano Mateo, who died of a respiratory illness just a few days after being born. In Bardo, Silverio’s struggle to accept the death of his son Mateo, who died just 30 hours after being born, afflicts the character throughout the movie.
But what makes Bardo stand out from other autobiographical films is its structure: a complex thread of dream-like sequences that merge into each other as Silverio meditates on his existence in a way that resembles impressionistic paintings. At first, this technique is quite difficult to follow. It can be unclear what is real and what is part of a dream, or in what order things are supposed to happen.
Just as Silverio tries to organize the scrambled pieces of his life, the film forces the audience to pick up the pieces and decide what’s real. As the plot slowly assembles, however, it becomes evident that looking for reality isn’t the right idea. The events sort of become secondary to the feelings evoked by the complexities that both Silverio and Iñárritu are pondering about fatherhood, identity, and history.
The themes discussed are further augmented by the usage of rich surrealist imagery. For instance, Iñárritu depicts Silverio’s son’s death by showing that he literally refuses to be born and is returned to his mother’s womb. Later, Silverio’s confrontation with his father features his adult face merged with the body of a young child as he talks with a towering parental figure.
A unique way to show Latin America’s cultural complexity.
The imagery of Bardo shines when it’s combined with deep symbolism and striking sequences in landmark locations like Mexico City to discuss politics and history. The level of American economic influence in Mexico is discussed at one point during a conversation about Amazon’s potential acquisition of a Mexican state. This takes place in the Chapultepec Castle, the ancient seat of French colonial power in Mexico, as scenes from a well-known battle of the Mexican-American war play out in the background.
The horrors of Spanish colonization are embodied by a mountain of indigenous corpses in the middle of the Zócalo, the central square of the city, and the location of the major temple of Tenochtitlán, which was destroyed by the Spanish, where Silverio talks with conquistador Hernán Cortés.
Bardo is far from the first movie to tackle war, colonization, and immigration in Latin America. In fact, these topics are the bread and butter of the region’s cinema. But the film is unique in the way it presents these themes with lyricism and meaning. The word “bardo” also means bard in Spanish: the poets that recount legends and stories through public recitations. The film’s political commentary functions in a similar way.
Like a bard, it presents a deeply artistic view of facts to convey the meaning behind generational wounds, and, in that way, show how they are present in contemporary society. The film approaches some of the most complicated topics affecting Mexican society today. And in many ways, the rest of Latin America. None of these issues have easy answers, the film submits, adding much-needed complexity to the ongoing conversation surrounding Latin American issues.
While Iñárritu’s directorial vision is full of long shots and dramatic angles, plus Eugenio Caballero’s impeccable production design, by no means is Bardo an unassailable effort. The film’s constant usage of surrealism can become tiresome and convoluted. The onerous 159-minute run time is noticeable in the film’s pacing, to the point where several sequences probably should’ve been cut entirely.
And audiences might have a hard time understanding some of the imagery if they don’t have prior knowledge of Mexican history and its current political panorama. Still, this is arguably Iñárritu’s most personal film to date, and one that is so deeply entrenched in its own heart and soul, inaccessible as it might be to those who pass it by.
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths releases on December 16th on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix.
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths - 9/10