Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths unspools a series of remarkable images designed to lead us deep into one man's psychic condition.
Yes, that sounds pretentious, but Inarritu's reach for significance doesn't stop there. A deliberate invitation to head scratching, Bardo's subtitle suggests a movie that marries a game-like approach to feelings of free-fall fuzziness.
What saves Bardo from its own grandiosity -- at least some of the time -- is the playfulness that Inarritu brings to what otherwise might be seen as a gargantuan display of overreach.
Put another way, not all of Bardo needs be taken seriously, even though the movie deals with weighty matters.
A disaffected journalist and documentary filmmaker played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho gives Bardo its wobbly center. Unlike other troubled men, Cacho's Silverio seems comfortable or at least resigned to his disaffection. Maybe he's even a little bored with himself.
Broadly framed and episodic, Bardo introduces us to Silverio on the eve of his receiving an award in Los Angeles. Silverio returns to Mexico, a country in which he has not lived for 20 years. In Mexico, Silverio begins a lengthy encounter with his life: his career, his marriage, his role as a father, and, most importantly, his mortality.
Shades of Fellini’s 8 1/2 haunt Bardo, as do other movies but Inarritu's imagery — the movie’s undeniable strong point —achieves singularity with help from cinematographer Darius Khondji. Khondji and Inarritu concoct a vision that could have found an alternative life on a painter’s easel.
Late in the movie, Silverio climbs a pyramid composed of dead bodies as part of an effort to show that the original inhabitants of Mexico were brutalized and murdered. At the summit of this bizarre Aztec hill, Silverio converses with Hernan Cortes, the 16th Century Spanish conqueror, a figure who becomes an emblem of a still-unresolved part of the Mexican past.
A ghost? A hallucination? You decide.
This impressive heap of flesh isn't sufficient for Inarritu, who shatters the illusion by showing us how the mountain was built and filmed. It's as if Inarritu can't resist deconstructing his own brilliance.
A scene at a dance in Mexico City held to honor Silverio includes a dazzling shot of Silverio dancing to David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. The giddy rush of the party put me in mind of the ecstatic frenzy Italian director Paolo Sorentino sometimes found in The Great Beauty.
Strange and compelling stuff, and I haven’t even mentioned the baby that refuses to be born and is pushed back into his mother’s womb. Why? Because the world is too fucked up, Silverio explains.
At times, the movie seems like a lamentation for this lost son -- and also an excuse for a bit of shock comedy. During one inopportune moment with his wife, Silverio must push the baby back into the womb himself.
Story strands appear and vanish in dreamlike fashion, touching past and present and sometimes taking the form of a domestic drama. On such occasions, Inarritu provides glimpses of Silverio’s relationship with his wife (Griselda Siciliani) and his two children (Iker Sanchez Solano and Ximena Lamadrid).
I wish that Silverio had been a less familiar character, the middle-aged artist riddled by doubt and splayed across the chasm of a wide cultural divide. Throughout the movie, various characters accuse Silverio of betraying his Mexican roots to garner favor with the US journalistic and film establishments.
At least once, Silverio strikes back, but he usually joins the chorus of criticism. He questions his achievements, wondering if he isn’t a fraud and turning into the kind of character we've seen too often, like the pal who's always harping on the same dejected note.
And, yes, Inarritu does carry on. The movie feels long, even after Inarritu cut 22 minutes from the film’s original 174-minute running time.
So what about the elephant in the room? Should Bardo be seen as a quasi-autobiographical confession from a director who has climbed the ladder of success. Inarritu has won Academy Awards for best direction (Birdman and The Revenant) and has received additional Oscar nominations.
Bardo is the first movie he’s made in Mexico since 2001’s Amores Perros. Like Silverio, he has returned to the land of his birth.
It's tempting to regard Bardo as Inarritu’s exercise in self-exploration, which is way of saying that the movie can be viewed as the eruption of a bountiful ego: mesmerizing, chaotic, beautiful, amusing, and even a little goofy.
Some will find all of this off-putting and bloated; at times, I found myself in that camp but then I'd be snapped back by a bravura image. For me, watching the movie was like riding a seesaw of conflicting responses.
Perhaps that's what Inarritu had in mind. Bardo opens with a shot of a vast desert expanse. We see the shadow of a man who seems to be running across parched terrain. Occasionally, the shadow lifts and heads skyward, only to vanish before returning to earth.
The man is never seen. Only the shadow.
That summarizes Inarritu's flickering phantom of a movie as well as anything. Engage. Detach. Liftoff. Come back down to Earth. Wonder where you’ve been.
Bardo is that kind of movie.
Bardo has had a theatrical release in some markets; it will be released in more on Dec. 11, and will be available on Netflix on Dec. 16.