Of the so-called “three amigos” — comprising Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — whose films have in recent years penetrated the international stage both critically and commercially, Iñárritu arguably has also generated the greatest controversy. This should come as no surprise: where Cuarón and del Toro alike have imbued the bulk of their Hollywood imprints with searing pathos and a devout commitment to magical realism, Iñárritu, for the most part, shies away from what one might term the prestige of commercial populism, grasping instead for grittier psychological expressions of humanity’s condition. Making his way from his 2000 Mexican breakthrough, Amores Perros, onto the global arena (Cannes, Oscars, DiCaprio) with 2014’s metafictional Birdman and 2015’s folkloric historical The Revenant, the filmmaker’s modus operandi, as it were, hinges greatly on reflexive interplay between the different narratological and thematic threads which inform, inspire, and comprise his work. Historical revisionism, the nature of art and commercialism, intertextuality, individual responsibility in the age of neoliberal imperialism — all these constitute Iñárritu’s personal obsessions, having been put to screen and subsequently popularized by a simultaneously fawning and finicky media hubbub.
Despite eschewing the more conventional modes of cinematic populism, however, Iñárritu is no stranger to spectacle. His directorial style frequently trades restraint for revelation, targeted psychology for helter-skelter maximalism, the effects of which generally are both voyeuristic fascination and vomitous frustration. In an oeuvre that has witnessed increasing dives into the occult subjectivities of an auteurist mind, Iñárritu’s gravitation toward self-parody comes almost naturally, and BARDO, his latest, wholeheartedly embodies the auteur’s garish ethos. Mirroring the director’s own effort to shoot his first film in his home country in over twenty years, BARDO chronicles the oneiric remembrances and reconstructions of one Silverio Gama (played with convincing inscrutability by Daniel Giménez Cacho), an acclaimed journalist-cum-documentarian whose newfound fame abroad — having been the first Mexican to receive a U.S. award in journalistic ethics — finds its antithetical derision and paranoia in his return to Mexico, where he reunites with family, reminisces on his childhood, and revisits the ghosts of decades and centuries past.
Silverio is a displaced man, an artist struggling to come to terms with his legacy, a critic living out his worst nightmare of reconciling his pursuit of authenticity with allegations of phony hypocrisy. His son berates him for unduly romanticizing the native sal de la tierra even as Silverio himself cashes in on the international recognition for prominently representing, in his docufiction, the grungy reality of Mexico’s criminal underbelly. His wife and him mourn — after twenty years — the death of their third child, who lived for only thirty hours but continues to bear shape in the aging director’s mind as a chimeric totem still alive in its mother’s womb, refusing to exit it “because the world is too fucked up.” He fears reprisal, not just from public figures and talk-show hosts whom he’s convinced he’s betrayed by emigrating, but also from the imagined interlocutors — notably Hernán Cortés — he boldly conjures and confronts by way of historical analgesia. Most poignantly, it can be argued, he longs to make up for lost time, to exorcize the insecure silences from his deceased parents and refract his wishes for their recognition onto his imagined reunions with them: in a public bathroom, and in their old home.
These loose narrative threads, spanning over two-and-a-half hours, comprise Iñárritu’s scintillating, vivid, yet no doubt hagiographic paean to subjectivity. BARDO is most accurately summarized as a grand, maximalist affair of autofiction, transposing the filmmaker’s heftiest fears and desires onto his onscreen avatar in a proclamatory act of confession. Iñárritu imagines Silverio as something of a Jep Gambardella, the brooding protagonist of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, but whose search for the sublime this time involves less an objective encounter with faces and places than it concatenates them into irreducible, idiosyncratic, and hopefully indelible images. Insofar as compadres Cuarón and del Toro craft worlds that correspond to some external frame of reference despite their clearly immutable fixations on fantasy, Iñárritu himself looks inward through a gaze at once painfully sincere and caustically insular. He literally silences his fictional critics with a playful snapping of fingers; he responds to critiques (thinly veiled, of his own work) with premeditated vigor; and he, most damningly, situates his journey at a remove, paradoxically extracting Silverio the lost soul from Silverio’s engorged, phantasmatic stream of consciousness.
Such an approach, of course, is not without its merits. At the very least, BARDO enthralls with its grandiloquent setpieces and metaphorical unveilings, delighting in puncturing the recesses of an imagination unconstrained by finitude. But what ultimately constrains BARDO is not its finitude of content, but that of form. It hedges too much, wanting to be both satirical barb against Iñárritu’s haters and honest excavation of his poetic journey, but ending up more like self-parody. Its formula is fundamentally recursive: subtitled False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths after Silverio’s fictitious award-winner, the film revels in the contestation between reality and fiction, acknowledgement and autopoiesis; since it fundamentally peddles falsities, why not insulate auteurial singularity under the pretext of documenting hard-earned years of wisdom? Though not without moments of technical and visual splendor (the film incorporates several seemingly impossible cuts and transitions), it all translates to a spectacle of unbridled, self-aggrandizing vanity nigh opposed entirely by an equally spiritual coterie of image-makers: Malick, Reygadas, and Tarkovsky. BARDO’s title does have roots in the spiritual world, referring to the Buddhist concept of an intermediate state somewhere between death and rebirth, and the bulk of Iñárritu’s narrative is indeed bookended by Mexico’s arid, never-ending desert, over which Silverio — dressed in the suit of maestro, magician — glides, invisible except for his shadow. But shadow is all there is, and no concentration of wild camera movements, haunting reveries, and Netflix-backed capital alone can enliven the solipsistic theater of purgatory.
You can currently stream Alejandro González Iñárritu’s BARDO on Netflix.