Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths)
Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades
starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Hugo Albores, Andrés Almeida, Misha Arias De La Cantolla
written by Nicolás Giacobone & Alejandro G. Iñárritu
directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
by Walter Chaw I can't tell you how tempting it is to just re-post my review of Birdman for Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Bardo with a neon "BUT MORE SO" flashing over it, given that I've already invested a full three hours in the Mexican auteur's latest altar to unseemly false modesty. (Oscars four and five, here we come.) This one is another technically dazzling cri de cœur featuring a tortured artist caught in the vicissitudes of a midlife crisis. The stand-in for Iñárritu is Mexican investigative journalist Silverio (a wonderful Daniel Giménez Cacho), who returns to Mexico for the first time in years on the eve of his winning a prestigious award from an American institution. This leads to the usual mid-life stuff: a visit with a dead father and a dying mother; a raucous party where his old friends give him shit for exploiting Mexicans and Mexican culture for gringo fame, power, and approval; a magic-realist consideration of a still-born child, resulting in a repulsive gag played like a circus trick in which a newborn is shoved back into the womb; and the exploration of impostor syndrome, which feels increasingly disingenuous with every enormous set-piece ripped off the Film School Mount Olympus. Bardo is Jay Sherman's 8½, and knowing it doesn't excuse it.
Despite back-to-back Academy Awards for Directing, Iñárritu is still All That Jazz-ing his (literal this time) crucifixion at the hands of "enemies," i.e., critics, who have him formulated to the wall. A solid hour of this interminable slog, this unwanted but tone-perfect adaptation of Warren Zevon's "Splendid Isolation," is Silverio walking around meaningfully as DP Darius Khondji gives glory and weight to shadow and clumsy suggestion. On the subtlety scale, Bardo, like Birdman before it, would rank "Full Shrek." Oh, you got that reference, good for you--you've seen Fellini and Gilliam, now here's the beach scene from The Tree of Life, and the adolescent dreamscapes of Emir Kusturica, and the anachronistic historical reenactments of Alexander Sokurov, and the giant statuary hand from Theo Angelopoulos's Landscape in the Mist, and the intimate beachfront annihilations and mundane infantilizations of Kaufman/Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the umbilici of Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, and the psychedelic sexuality of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain. The only prize for ticking these references off the checklist is that people think you're boring as fuck, and they're right. Maybe Iñárritu knows the most tedious thing on God's green earth is an artist who thinks his life is novel and so he seeks to camouflage his quotidian disappointments with the work of real artists who've managed to tease universal truths out of their fear and loathing. Maybe he knows being thought of in the same company as those giants and their masterpieces wouldn't happen naturally, whatever his popular acclaim, because he's yet to make a single film as good and pure as his first, Amores Perros. For all the crosses in Bardo, that's probably the heaviest one for him to carry.
The most honest thing about Bardo is how unlikeable and drab Silverio is. I appreciate that at the end of his life ("Bardo" is a term taken from Tibetan Buddhism referring to the state between death and rebirth), among the obvious teatime-of-the-soul wankery he's obsessed with are his pubescent memories of fantasy-ravaging stroke-mag model Tania (Fabiola Guajardo) under his blanket fort when his mother walks in on him. Tania's breasts are replaced with fried eggs, by the way, over-easy, and Silverio has somehow conflated sucking the yolk out of them with nursing with jerking-off--because Catholics, amiright? The rest is given over to at-times-astonishingly beautiful sequences of such self-importance, pathological grandiosity, and ugly narcissism that what should inspire awe instead causes real, intense irritation. It's a guy spilling his guts to find he's incapable of expressing existential pain without ripping off others: a T.S. Eliot without the genius. The charitable reading is that Bardo is the filmmaker acknowledging this, that all of these recitations of Octavio Paz, these conflations of the persecuted ego with Cortés the Conqueror, are self-deprecating jabs at a guy who deserves all the opprobrium he's gathered, even as he luxuriates in the riches and plaudits of pandering to devalued cultural institutions. He's gotten everything he's wanted except true greatness--and you can't achieve that by stitching together the ragged pieces scavenged from the legacies of others who have. It's embarrassing to try. Give Iñárritu this, at least: he doesn't have a lot of shame.