Busan 2022 Review: BARDO, FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS, Pretentious but oh so Pretty
A journalist suffers an existential crisis of confidence after returning to his Mexican homeland.
It has been seven years since Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s last film, the epic western The Revenant, which scored him his second consecutive Best Director Oscar after winning for Birdman the previous year. Considering the subject matter of his latest work, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, the 59-year-old has been reeling from something of an existential crisis. This rambling, self-indulgent three-hour odyssey stars Daniel Giménez Cacho (Cronos, We Are What We Are) as a celebrated journalist and documentarian who arrives at a transformative mid-life crossroads on the eve of accepting a prestigious international award.
Reminiscent in tone and narrative fluidity of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which itself recalled the surreal masterworks of Federico Fellini, Bardo unspools as a semi-autobiographical rumination, ripe with anxiety and introspection. By turns funny, frustrating, absurd and heartfelt, Bardo sees the filmmaker attempting to address his critics, his career, his identity, as well as explore the tangled and traumatic relationship between his homeland of Mexico and its unruly northern neighbour.
While certainly more of an experiential offering than a tightly constructed narrative, the tenuous through-line of Iñárritu’s film sees Silverio Gama (Cacho) return to Mexico after many years spent living in the United States. While the intelligentsia are proud of his achievements, not least that he is about to receive an award that has never been given to a Latin American before, there is a simmering frustration that he has turned his back on Mexico in order to achieve this position of prominence. He is vying for an interview with the US president, at a time when Amazon is attempting to purchase the Mexican state of Baha California. The US ambassador offers to put the two men together, but the US want Gama’s vocal support in return.
At home, Gama’s life is equally unsettled. His children have grown up in the US, something for which they are grateful, while acknowledging that their immigrant status has been something of a burden. Gama is also haunted by the death of his third son, Mateo, mere hours after he was born. His wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) is eager for them to try again, but - in some of the film’s most startlingly surreal sequences - visions of infant Mateo repeatedly invade their most intimate moments.
The film is full of these lapses into dream-like fantasy, as a myriad inner demons and distractions wrestle for attention and reconciliation in Gama’s head. In realising this onscreen, Iñárritu spins a procession of vivid images, carnivalesque set-pieces, and disorientating leaps across time and space. It is here that cinematographer Darius Khondji steps in to dazzle audiences with some of the year’s most complex set-ups and startling imagery. It is no small tragedy that most viewers will only be able to experience Bardo on Netflix, as the film is a visual triumph that deserves to be seen as large as possible, even - or perhaps, especially - in the moments when its focus gets away from its director.
From the architecturally lavish streets of Mexico City to the glistening beaches of its north west shore, Mexico looks absolutely stunning throughout. However, it is the long single-takes - of which there are many - when these craftsmen really showboat their skills. Whether weaving through the circular hallways of Gama’s home, or following him through the sweaty throngs of revellers at a heady welcome home party, Iñárritu wows us with his technical prowess, while Khondji proves more than capable of filling the shoes vacated by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki.
Bardo broaches so many topics, seemingly at random, in an endlessly evolving stream-of-consciousness, that audiences are bound to be wrong-footed at some point, or tire of the political debates, philosophical pontificating, or lengthy depictions of mundane home-life. Viewing Bardo from your couch is only going to make the challenge all the more demanding, so if the opportunity arises to experience it on the big screen, interested parties should certainly make every effort to do so.
Ultimately, one’s enjoyment of Iñárritu’s unwieldy indulgence will be influenced by the baggage that viewers bring to it. A tautly scripted, captivating thrill ride it most certainly is not. Those willing to shift down a gear, settle back and let the experience wash over them, however, will witness one of the most accomplished filmmakers working today unload a lifetime of personal grievances and insecurities, writ large for all the world to see, in an intoxicating parade of cinematic bombast.