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Bardo(or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) ★★★



Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid, Iker Sanchez Solano, Andrés Almeida, Francisco Rubio

Release: December 16th, 2022 (Netflix)

Venice Film Festival WORLD PREMIERE

In the last hour of Bardo (or False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), there are scenes so sublimely beautiful that they bring a tear to your eye. Unfortunately, you have to watch the first two hours to get to the third act, and it’s a long, arduous and often insufferably pretentious journey. There’s blood, sweat and tears in these three hours, in many scenes too. But like a dreaded visit to the dentist, when it’s over, and you run your tongue along smooth, clean teeth, you can almost forget how painful the treatment was. Almost. 

Bardo is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s first film made in his native Mexico in 22 years. It seems to be an exorcising of many national and likely personal demons for him. That it’s a labour of love, passion, vision and pent-up ideas and visions is not in doubt.

It’s hard not to think that this is Iñárritu’s Roma, the 2018 film made by his friend, compatriot and cinematic rival, Alfonso Cuaron. In both, the two men, now celebrated worldwide, return home. However, while Roma was based on Cuaron’s childhood experiences and family life, Bardo is bigger in scope, more confessional, more autobiographical, more allegorical and more ambitious. It seeks to lay bare the personal thoughts, fears, ideas, opinions, fantasies and secrets that are difficult to expose to outside scrutiny, as well as shine an uncomfortable light on the societal, national and international problems that invade and disturb the individual mind. The film is bigger in technical scope too. The endless, internal landscape of the individual mind is matched by the equally epic vistas of the outside world. Iñárritu’s gargantuan craftsmanship is on full display, as is that of master cinematographer Darius Khondji and the film often looks stunning to the eye even if the story doesn’t engage the heart or interest.

In the middle of it all, stumbling, like a man who has lost his grasp on his life and is now floundering between reality, fiction and magic realism, is Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) (looking ever so much like Iñárritu himself). Gama is a Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker living with his family in Los Angeles. He’s feted by the American middle-class liberals in his chosen home as an intellectual and fighter for their pet social causes. They will bestow a prestigious journalism award on him for his efforts. (As an aside, the scale of the celebration of Gama and his talents in the USA and Mexico seems somewhat incongruous with his job as a serious journalist and is more fitting with the fame of a lionised feature film director winning Oscars – like, say, Iñárritu)! 

Before he is due to pick up his award, Gama decides to take a break, with his family, in his homeland. The trip becomes a journey for him in more ways than he expected, simultaneously confusing and an eye opener as he grapples with what it is he truly believes in, what his reality is in the context of what fact really might be and how disconnected he might be from the marginalised underclass he patronisingly believes he knows and is fighting for.

He faces an onslaught of unpalatable truths from those around him. His Americanized teenage son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) asks him why he claims to speak for poor Mexican immigrants to explain his own insecurities and failings. ‘If you love Mexico so much, why did you leave to live in the USA?’ There are the cruel jibes, live on air, from a popular television host he believes to be his friend who, during an interview with Gama, exposes him as a fraud, making money for himself by constantly talking about the poor (although this television humiliation turns out to be one of the many fantasy sequences in the film and fact Gama ducked out of doing the interview much to the annoyance of the host who later berates him anyway during a lengthy party sequence). There is also the undisguised jealousy from old friends who profess amazement that he ever amounted to anything. 

In amongst the bloated, self-absorbed angst, there are some hard-hitting social commentary jabs scattered throughout the film, most notably and forcefully in the sections exploring Mexican immigration to the USA when the film briefly catches fire. The scene from one of Gama’s acclaimed documentaries featuring an imprisoned drug lord, defiant in his orange jumpsuit, is uncomfortable, unnerving, chilling and genuinely powerful. The home truths the drug lord contemptuously spits out deliver a true sucker punch against everything Gama thinks he stands for. If Inarritu’s film had struck a similar bombshell tone and in half its time, Bardo would be walking away with golden gongs throughout awards season. But instead, for all its big ideas and visual spectacle, it’s remains middle-class, middle-aged, self-indulgent, unedited, intellectual naval gazing – an anguished cry of ‘what’s it all about in the end?’

If you’re wondering what the title means, it’s a Tibetan word for the Buddhist concept of a transitional floating state between death and rebirth. The opening scene of the film is a flashback to Gama’s wife giving birth to the couple’s third child, Matteo, who decides he doesn’t fancy leaving the womb, after all, to enter a world he thinks is ‘too fucked up’ and instead wants to be pushed back into his mother’s body. He is duly obliged by the doctor, and the mother leaves the hospital, the long, bloody umbilical cord trailing behind her all the way. The tragedy of what is a stillbirth at the start of the film is concluded in one of the poignant, heart-wrenching scenes at the end, leaving you misty-eyed. The beauty is almost enough to make you forgive Iñárritu for the first two hours. Almost. 

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