“You inevitably turn into what people think you are,” someone opines a few hours (or years) into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths),” a movie so nakedly personal in spite of its epic scope that even the most benign stray comments betray the sting of self-flagellation. And yet there’s a reason why this one manages to break the skin.
By this point in the film’s oneiric non-story, it’s already clear that Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) — a journalist turned documentarian who returns to Mexico a few days before he’s scheduled to receive a major industry award in his adopted home of Los Angeles — is a stand-in for the Oscar-winning auteur behind the camera, who’s shooting an entire movie in his birth country for the first time since “Amores Perros” catapulted him to fame 22 years ago.
By the same token, it’s already clear that Silverio knows what people think of him, as “Bardo” is nothing if not the work of someone who’s been too successful to avoid their own press (the same was also true of “Birdman,” albeit in a more peevish and hostile way).
Iñárritu is fully aware that a significant portion of the American film establishment has come to see him as “a pretentious fraud,” and he seems to suspect that people south of the border feel like he no longer belongs to them, or with them.
And so he’s made a movie that proves the voices in his head right, presumably because it felt like the only honest way forward. With “Bardo,” Iñárritu delivers a cartoonishly indulgent film about the fact that he makes cartoonishly indulgent films — a rootless epic about a rootless man who’s been unmoored by his own self-doubt.
The result is insufferable and staggering in almost equal measure, and often at the same time. It’s a midlife crisis meta-comedy that channels everyone from Federico Fellini to Emir Kusturica in the service of its carnivalesque self-parody.
“Bardo” is hardly the first Iñárritu film to argue that “life is nothing but a series of senseless events and idiotic images,” nor even the first of them to do so on purpose, but it is the first of them to use that notion as a starting point rather than a grand reveal. Iñárritu still feels lost by the end of its three-hour running time, but that doesn’t mean “Bardo” isn’t a step in the right direction.
“Bardo” opens with a flashback in which Silverio’s wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani) gives birth to a CGI baby named Mateo who immediately tells the doctor that “this world is too fucked up,” and demands to be shoved back inside his mother’s vagina — a wish that is granted without hesitation. As with all of the more fanciful touches in a film that strives to find reality in fiction, and fiction in reality, this ridiculous prologue seems to reverberate with a pain that’s too raw for Iñárritu to approach directly.
It’s unclear if Iñárritu has felt the heartache of a stillbirth in his own family, or if the lingering trauma of such a tragedy simply felt to him like a natural throughline for a nonlinear journey through the liminal spaces that separate this life from itself, let alone from the next. Either way, it’s soon made obvious that Mateo isn’t the only one lost in the Bardo.
For one thing, Iñárritu almost immediately starts dropping hints that this entire movie is the death dream that flashes across the black screen inside Silverio’s closed eyelids after he suffers a stroke near the Santa Monica stop on the L.A. metro rail. The particulars aren’t important — Iñárritu just needs a flimsy excuse to tell a story that makes no distinction between fantasy and reality, love and understanding, failure and success, pretentiousness and truth, ego and humility, Silverio and himself.
And “Bardo” absolutely does not. The local news says that Amazon is buying the Mexican state of Baja California. A meeting between Silverio and a pompous American dignitary is interrupted by a massive re-creation of the same Mexican-American War slaughter the two men are discussing; a cleaning lady obliviously continues to polish the marble floors in the background as scores of costumed young men pretend to die around her.
A bit of cunnilingus between Silverio and Lucía screeches to a halt courtesy of a surprise cameo from Mateo — a special effects shot that feels like a dream sequence from DJ Khaled’s origin story — before it’s revealed that the entire scene actually takes place inside the sleeping head of the couple’s teenage son, Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano). Awkward!
Awkward, but also par for the course in a film that can only recognize the sacred through the lens of the profane, and later includes a sequence in which a pubescent Silverio — a Benjamin Button-like abomination brought to life by digitally transposing Cacho’s adult head onto a slender child’s body like some kind of bobblehead from hell — finds the pin-up model from his masturbatory fantasies, discovers that her breasts are actually two very runny eggs, and proceeds to drink them dry of their yolk.
The tainted holiness of Bryce Dessner’s horn-forward score offers “Bardo” a fitting soundtrack (imagine the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme song playing over Sean Penn’s scenes in “The Tree of Life”), but several parts of this movie feel woefully incomplete without a reaction shot of Nathan Fielder watching along and saying “…OK.”
Anyway, the fact remains that mapping any moment of “Bardo” to a particular location or plane of existence is as arbitrary as drawing a border between two countries, and only becomes more so as Silverio’s existential crisis begins to ripple across the generations and centuries that connected him to Mexico in the first place.
Locations from the movie’s opening half include Freudian dreams, a lavish party celebrating Silverio’s award, and the harsh desert that he once visited while shooting an old documentary about some ill-fated immigrants who would never receive the same red carpet treatment from America’s liberals that awaited him.
Locations from the more abstract and exasperating later portions include a dystopian vision of LAX that evokes the visual humor of “L.A. Story,” a Goya-esque vision of Mexico City in which 16th century conquistador Hernán Cortés meets Silverio atop a towering pyramid of naked corpses, and an empty landscape that seems recycled from a Theo Angelopoulos movie (down to the giant statues being moved across the earth), or would if not for the characters reciting Mexican poet Octavio Paz. “The amphitheater of the genital sun in the dung heap.” Indeed it is.
How strange that a film as personal as “Bardo” — a film that could not, for reasons both creative and financial, have been made by anyone else — should feel so borrowed. Indeed, the thing that most readily identifies “Bardo” as an Iñárritu movie is the virtuosic way it adopts greatness as a genre instead of earning it as a reward.
Here is another magnum opus that’s eager to suffocate you with the same air of significance that Iñárritu has sewn into his previous work, only this time that air is also the writer-director’s ultimate subject (frequent collaborator Nicolás Giacobone shares credit on the screenplay). “Bardo” was likewise shot on 65mm with the same mythic grandeur that masked the deficiencies of “Birdman” and “The Revenant” — the great Darius Khondji is more than capable of mimicking the spiritual affect of Emmanuel Lubezki’s floating camerawork, especially during the epic tracking shots that allow the film to feel like falling into a slipstream — and while viewers may argue over the merits of Iñárritu’s half-formed conclusion, there’s no doubt the director has, like his latest protagonist, “spent his life trying to convince himself of the importance of what he does.”
For his part, Cacho is compelling enough in a role that gives him too much to play and not enough to do with it. Iñárritu doesn’t put too fine a point on the character’s resemblance to himself — at least not until the scene in which Silverio dons a pair of black sunglasses — but it’s still perfectly clear that Cacho is trapped inside this orgy of self-doubt along with the rest of us, and that not even Iñárritu knows the way out.
At one point Silverio finds himself lost in a nightmare of signifiers that feel just abstruse enough for Iñárritu to be acquitted in court: A storefront referencing the Tower of Babel. A trio of barking dogs. Leonardo DiCaprio very subtly wearing an entire bear in the background (okay, that last one might not be true).
“Success has been my biggest failure,” Silverio whines to his father. “Depression is a bourgeois ailment” comes the curt reply. Some of the most arresting stretches of “Bardo” are the ones that leave you conflicted over whether Iñárritu is trying to justify his body of work or if he’s trying to apologize for it. Better yet are the parts that suggest Iñárritu is sincerely trying to work that out for himself.
The eye-rolling LAX sequence notwithstanding, that uncertainty tends to ring true whenever Iñárritu directly confronts his relationship with Mexico, his decision to leave it behind, and his conditional ability to come and go as he pleases. The soul-searching he does on the subject only goes so deep — Silverio is accused of touristically exploiting the undocumented subjects of his documentaries, a criticism Iñárritu may have leveled against himself while making an acclaimed 2017 VR project that allowed users to experience an illegal border-crossing from a migrant’s POV — but so much of this movie traces back to a simple question posed to the character by his son: “If you love Mexico so much, why did you take us to the States?”
“Bardo” gets away with its have your cake and eat it too approach to ambivalence because Iñárritu makes such a ludicrous spectacle of trying to resolve it. Once a scrappy young filmmaker, he’s since become an Oscar-winning auteur with several nice houses but nothing that truly feels like a home. Now, it appears as if Iñárritu’s increasingly overwrought efforts to affirm his own significance — to make art of such undeniable gravity that he no longer has any need for roots — have left him stranded in the Bardo and hounded by the same voices that inspired him to write the bitter critic who Lindsay Duncan played in “Birdman.”
This time, however, Iñárritu’s reaction to them isn’t self-defense, but surrender. “Our true enemies end up being our best teachers,” someone declares in the dying moments of this film about the grace of letting go, and “Bardo” — both despite and because of its chaotic grandeur — builds to an ending that suggests its director is finally ready to learn. Maybe, in the span between this movie and the next, he’ll even become something more than what people already think.
“Bardo” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it in select theaters on Friday, November 18 and streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 16.