Reporting from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival.
A shadow in the desert, fish flopping on the floor of an L.A. Metro train, a child who does not wish to be born is pushed back into his mother. These are but three images writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu offers in the opening of BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, his latest and first film set primarily in Mexico since 2000’s Amores perros. It is also—according to Iñárritu, when he introduced the movie at the Telluride Film Festival—his most personal movie to date. Iñárritu delights in building one surrealist image on top of the other without pausing for context. Welcome to 8½ territory.
The story here concerns Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a world-renowned Mexican journalist cum documentary filmmaker, receiving a lifetime achievement award. Like many in middle age, Silverio tries to reconcile the work he’s done with the person he’s become. Standard navel-gazing stuff? You better believe it.
The weaknesses and frustrations of BARDO—the movie runs 174 minutes and refuses to end—are easy to identify. So much so that one of the characters in the movie calls them out while critiquing Silverio’s shortfalls: His influences are obvious, and he doesn’t bother to bury them; his approach to current issues is out of touch; he puts too much of himself in his work; and so on. Until this scene, I, too, was watching BARDO not as a viewer but as a critic armed with a grab bag of film history. Here is where Iñárritu draws from Fellini; here is the influence of Fosse. This moment feels like Jodorowsky; this moment feels like Buñel. Malick, Welles, nothing but a handful of names and my own smugness.
BARDO is an expansive, pretentious piece of work, no doubt, but it is ambitious and electric, and smugness is no way to watch it. Much like in Iñárittu’s previous movies, I care not for the story but am bowled over by the sheer splendor of the images. The scene where Silverio climbs a mountain of bodies to confront Hernán Cortés is a moment unlike any other. Cinematographer Darius Khondji and production designer Eugenio Caballero harmonize to create images with such jaw-dropping splendor it’s a shame to think the vast majority of audiences will watch BARDO on small devices when it debuts on Netflix later this year.
I suspect those viewers will decry BARDO’s lack of compelling characters, and they won’t be wrong—they’re all ciphers, really. You feel this most in a late scene where Silverio is denied a common courtesy at LAX’s Customs and Border Protection station. He’s a man who’s worked his life serving two masters only to learn that neither wants him. Silverio is a man without a country, and in another movie, this scene might land with more pathos. Hell, any pathos. Here, it falls flat. That is, up to the moment where two Mexican Revolutionary soldiers run up to Silverio and drag him away.
Those soldiers are like a reverse payoff to a previous scene—another stunner of grandeur and choreography. Remember all those surrealist images of the desert and the fish and the reverse birth at the top? Iñárritu hangs around long enough to ground them in reality. It works, but what it amounts to is anyone’s guess.
BARDO, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths will be released in theaters on Nov. 4, 2022, and available on Netflix starting December 16.