Venice 2022 review: Bardo (Alejandro Iñárritu)

“When it works, it works, but Bardo is an exhausting film that is beautiful to look at but trips over its own metaphors and self-referencing nods too often to please anyone but the most die-hard of Iñárritu’s fans.”

Ever since his second film 21 Grams, Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu has always been at the centre of heated debates about his work being pretentious or not. His latest opus, with the unwieldy title Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (which understandably will be abbreviated to Bardo, a Buddhist term for the transitional state between death and rebirth), will have both sides sharpening their knives again. This surrealist sleepwalker of a film sees Iñárritu revel in unsubtle excess, like Hernán Cortés on a pile of indigenous bodies discussing colonialism with the protagonist (that is certainly ‘a choice’, as modern vernacular goes). Yet it also conjures up moments of true movie magic, a scene featuring an a cappella version of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance in particular sending shivers down this reviewer’s spine. In the end the excess wins out, resulting in a three-hour movie that could have had at least one third shaved off. When it works, it works, but Bardo is an exhausting film that is beautiful to look at but trips over its own metaphors and self-referencing nods too often to please anyone but the most die-hard of Iñárritu’s fans.

Bardo‘s loose narrative follows Silverio (a superb performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican journalist and documentarian who is to receive an important American award. As time or space is hardly linear in this film, the audience has to piece together the important moments in Silverio’s recent life that will eventually lead to the film’s enticing opening scene: a man’s shadow, seemingly filmed from POV perspective, running through the desert and launching himself into flight, the meaning of which will remain elusive until the very end. What follows is the first of many imaginative yet bonkers metaphorical scenes: a child is born, only to inform the obstetrician that he wants to be put back because the world is too messed up; a request that is promptly granted as he is shoved up into the womb again (he will reappear later during an attempt at cunnilingus; yes, you read that right).

After this stunning opening Bardo rarely gives the audience a moment of rest. Long tracking shots see Silverio move literally from scene to scene, introducing many characters in Silverio’s periphery, though few outside his family unit register. His wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani) and two children Lorenzo (Iker Sanchez Solano) and Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) are the only ones with a longterm influence on his trajectory, outside of a friend and TV host who is presented as a nemesis of sorts (Francisco Rubio). They all confront Silverio at one point or another with his inability to take responsibility for his actions, in particular in the way he plays both the American as well as the Mexican field. People accuse him of sucking up to his American corporate masters while lamenting the position of the less fortunate in his native country in his work, in particular the plight of those trying to cross the border in hopes of work and a better life.

The parallels to Iñárritu himself are all too obvious, and because he keeps on bringing down the sledgehammer on this particular theme one has to wonder how intentional this was and how much of a masturbatory exercise this actually is. Silverio is a character that certainly has flaws, but he is not presented in a negative light, especially when it comes to the love for his family and the loyalty to his people. This makes Bardo feel like Iñárritu excusing himself for hitting Hollywood, shedding guilt for having abandoned his home country. It’s interesting that both Iñárritu and his compatriot Alfonso Cuarón, for their most recent films, returned to their native country to tell stories that are deeply personal (even more so in the case of Cuarón’s Roma).

On the technical front Bardo excels, and though Darius Khondji’s cinematography might feel derivative of Emmanuel Lubezki’s wide-lens work in Iñárritu’s previous film The Revenant, or more pointedly Lubezki’s many collaborations with Terrence Malick (in terms of thematic content The Knight of Cups is the most apt comparison), that doesn’t take away from the fact that the film looks stunning. Furthermore, the lens choices fit the surrealist slant of the film very well. This makes Bardo an intriguing and engaging film to watch, but also a film that after the 2-hour mark starts to feel long in the tooth and repetitive. For Iñárritu’s fans this should not be an impediment, but his detractors will have their knives out again.