Bardo, or “I’m going to make it clear to the world I’m an artist,” is the first film from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu since 2015’s The Revenant and certainly his most bombastic work to date. Here Iñárritu leaves it all on the table in this contemporary autobiographical, nostalgia trip where Silvio a renowned documentary filmmaker returns to his motherland of Mexico. The character is almost indistinguishable from Iñárritu himself as the thoughts and feelings of these character mimic his personal ventures in an art imitating life way. The film takes us through Silvio’s dreams and the scenes his imagination creates as he takes his family back to Mexico before he is to receive a prestigious American journalism award. The film takes aim to break down so many parts of Iñárritu’s mind from his own work as a filmmaker, the condition of the United States, the condition of Mexico and how those two are linked both politically and personally for him.
One our first introduction to this idea of mixing the imagination with the political is we witness a discussion between Silvio and an American ambassador about the American Mexican war. As we step outside the luxurious castle, they turn to face a staged arrangement of soldiers running around the war they were discussing as Iñárritu recreates it in a surreal imaginative perspective.
In Bardo Iñárritu aims to tie the personal to tableaus of grand spectacle. Early in the film we see a slew of self-deprecating question asked to Silvio of a Mexican talk show. This parodies the idea of those celebrity TV interviews as the deeply personal nature of the host’s questions would never be asked on TV. Yet Iñárritu as a filmmaker clearly thinks his thoughts and problems often get put into the national spotlight through interviews and how he expresses himself in film. So, he takes the step to make his character go through even uglier queries about his private life. Another sequence sees Silvio wander around a city where he ends up in a debate with the leader of the Spanish Colonists who came to Mexico all those years ago. The scene is set on a mountain of CGI bodies only to be revealed as hundreds of extras for a scene in the film Silvio was making. Iñárritu never actually puts his physical body n the film but his casting of Daniel Gomez Cacho as Silvio makes it seem like he was looking for a skilled look-alike. An actor who could be mistaken for the director when Daniel is wearing sunglasses on. Leaving Daniel to present the artistic portrait of Iñárritu in all its shame and glory.
A lot of the film’s more intimate elements deal with Sivio’s existential and personal worries about life including his relationship with his children, his wife, and their shared grief of their unborn child Mateo. Iñárritu tries to frame Silvio’s process to cope with grief using bizarre comedic choices which see his wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliana) have the child put back into her, despite it becoming clear the child is dead. There are multiple bizarre scenes that continue to visualize his own personal debate about his personal attachment to Mexico and the United States as their value politically. Iñárritu has never seemed to be a filmmaker who wanted to communicate his more profound and political thoughts to an American audience considering the content of his Oscar winning films. But in leu of his two best director wins perhaps, he thought it time to use his platform to express his thoughts on the more significant North American issues without abandoning their personal reckoning on his life. It makes sense then that he turns to primarily Spanish language film while still letting his American influence shine through.
This war in his mind between American and Mexican values plays out on all sides. He has debates with family and old friends in Mexico about how he’s become a pretentious snob who aims to impress his gringo neighbors in Los Angeles. But even as a long-term resident Silvio is still not accepted by the United States as stated as much by a custom officer who himself is of a different ethnicity. He finds himself as a unique immigrant almost permanently stuck between borders.
In this scene Iñárritu expresses his lack of understanding in the immense pride and value Americans have in being born on American soil to be a true American. The customs officer consistently asks him to speak an English a satirical take on the immense hypocrisy and love America has with the English language despite their many citizens who speak in many international tongues. After all, America became what it is because of its separation from the colonial nation English comes from. It is a nation of immigrants and Iñárritu asks why its citizens view it any differently.
To review the plot of this film and its storytelling techniques is almost nonsensical as Iñárritu presents his ideas using poetic filmmaking in his own grand industrial form. It primarily deals with a modern picture of a man struggling with what the state of his world is. These surreal visuals which play out his life’s internal and external struggles through the eyes of his imagination where he can twist the look of anything. The film is clearly a deliberately crafted piece of filmmaking. Iñárritu himself has proved before that no one should ever accuse a filmmaker of being lazy and it certainly can’t be said of the man himself. The acting is all wonderful with the younger performers playing Silvio’s kids (Ximena Lamadrid & Iler Sanchez Solano) being especially impressive. The film while supplying a lot of its own visual goods in its absurd set pieces is wonderfully captured by Darius Khondji. A cinematographer who continually proves he can adapt his photography into the style of any modern auteur. The film’s visual effects are also wonderfully made as it blends the practical sets with its CGI to the point where its very hard to tell the difference. A feat that seems rarer and rarer with the increase of blue screens and LED VR landscapes.
Iñárritu attempts to put his soul and its struggles into cinematic form with great effort and thought. His scenes are deliberately crafted and built around precise conversation. Many long takes bring us into the realm of his dreams, imagination, thoughts, and art. Ideas he blurs together in its many fantastical sequences. He plays with narrative form in a way invocative of Fellini, Malick and Kaufman while meshing his own visual style into the settings and events we come to expect from Lynch, Von Trier and again Malick. But only if Malick was given a consistent sixty or so million-dollar budget.
The film’s story structure acts as a loop as minor characters and events overlap with the seemingly chronological plot that consistently jumps back and forth in time without cuts, the result makes it hard to tell when we’ve jumped through time. All these surreal images and the manipulation of time eventually just reveal a man reflecting on the whole of his life. What do we make of his life and his imagination? Most would say it’s a bit long for the narrative cinema and I would agree. However, this film is certainly worth checking out if you want to see what a filmmaker will do with almost complete control of his craft and the freedom to explore experimental narrative to an almost torturous degree. If personal experimental filmmaking is your niche, I’m sure you will have a lot of scenes you consider worth dissecting for a couple hours and a film you probably won’t soon forget.