Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
aka Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades
Ghastly, pretentious waffle that makes your standard-issue self-indulgence seem absolutely justified and entirely reasonable by comparison. I shudder to think what Alejandro G Iñárritu’s original, 174-minute cut was like, since this 160-minute one is never-ending. I don’t necessarily have a problem with filmmakers pleasing themselves as a first priority, I just expect them to have something, if not worthwhile, then moderately engaging to say if they expect others to be pleased by it too. And a modicum of wit perhaps, amid the preening self-regard. It may be anathema to say it, but I was never a great fan of 8½ – or Fellini generally – and would sooner take in Stardust Memories (a modicum of wit, amid the angst and gloom), so a director has to do something singularly remarkable in that vein to get me on board.
Sure, the visuals are good – it’s Darius Kondji – or would be if they weren’t incessantly resorting to a low-angled fish-eye lens, but you need to anchor them. Iñárritu’s surrogate is journo/documentary maker Silverio Gamo (Daniel Giménez Cacho), stricken with love/ hate and self-loathing about his work, his high profile, his relocation to LA (for fifteen years and standing) from Mexico – the proceedings continually return his home country’s history and relationship with its US oppressor – his wealth, his privilege, his family… You know, all the usual stuff.
Were there some vitality here, a penchant for the immersive vignette – the kind of thing Leos Carax might come up with à la Holy Motors or per Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (gorgeous to behold, that one) – that might be something, but Iñárritu appears to thumb his nose expressly at any such prospect, mounting a lost-on-the-dancefloor number to the sound of Let’s Dance but stripped of anything but Bowie’s voice; it’s perversely divested of anything approach its signature euphoria, so reflecting the tone of the picture as a whole.
Of course, as a meditation on life, death and the self-indulgence that is a filmmaker’s life between, one should probably expect only terminal pretension. Iñárritu’s earlier works, and his yen for subtitling his pictures in a manner that invites derision, informs us as much. The assumption of importance that accompanies the director’s films has rarely landed for me; debut Amores perros earned its kudos, but the likes of 21 Grams – showing as a triple bill with Seven Pounds and Stone – Babel and The Revenant left me various shades of cold. I rated Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), perhaps because its industry-wise affectations (down to the single-shot conceit) seemed to lend themselves to Iñárritu self-serious posing, consciously or not, but Bardo simply marks him out as an empty vessel making an unholy din.
There are fantasy sequences – son Mateo, who died a day after his birth, decides he “didn’t want to come out” so is pushed back into mother Lucia’s (Griselda Siciliani) womb; a metro carriage fills ankle-deep with water and escaped axolotls (revisited later); the 1847 Battle of Chapultepec is re-enacted in absurdist fashion when Silverio visits the American ambassador (Jay O Sanders) – some of which are part of his oxymoronic docufiction False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths or (How I Disappeared all the Way up my own Bottom): “You even put yourself in your movie”. He ducks out of an appearance on a talk show after fantasising his reception (“I was afraid they would humiliate me, make me a laughing stock”). He envisions himself in miniature when he talks to his dead dad in a men’s room. And he chats to Cortés. He has an altercation at US customs (“This is my home”), then has a stroke. Then he maybe/ maybe doesn’t die and imagines himself in the desert, trailed by family (because that’s original).
Some have been kind to the picture, affirming its self-indulgence but staking a claim to its often-dazzling allure. I could find nothing here that swept me away in any regard, be it the personalised or politicised. At one point, the talk show host Silverio stood up calls his docufiction oneiric, and that’s precisely what Bardo is. Sure to please its maker but no one else who isn’t a servile staffer. Or Netflix, who care more about boasting creative names than the quality of those creatives’ content.
Iñárritu, in a fit of pique and with no other options available to him, labelled Bardo’s naysayers racist: “If I maybe was from Denmark or if I was Swedish I would be a philosopher. But because I did it in a powerful way visually I am pretentious because I’m Mexican. If you’re a Mexican and you make a film like that, you’re a pretentious guy”. No, if you’re a pretentious guy and you make a film like that, you’re a pretentious guy. All this might have been justified, were Iñárritu reaching for something, anything of genuine profundity, but there’s a consistently moribund, facile quality to his existential posing. Asked about God, he was unsurprisingly nebulous – “I think that honestly God is around every moment, in nature and in those beautiful landscapes” – which you’d expect, given his film rigorously finds expansively shot meaninglessness in its search for meaning.
Certainly, I find it hard to believe anyone who was stoned out of their gourd would have the patience for it (in contrast to some suggestions). Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths isn’t rewardingly trippy/ philosophical/ audacious/ whacky (unless you count the torturous brass on the soundtrack as whacky). It’s a feeble-minded exercise in vaunting vanity.