A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man — Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths
Mexico’s entry for International Feature is a curious one, mostly because it’s very clear that the decision to submit it was down to the prestige of the filmmaker rather than the film itself. With a barely passable Rotten Tomatoes score of 60%, Bardo, False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths relies almost entirely on the Awards Season reputation of its director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, but even that revelation proves the point of the film’s detractors.
If Iñárritu’s name feels familiar, it should. He won back-to-back Best Director Oscars a few years ago, for Birdman and The Revenant, respectively. While both films are tremendous, the campaign push was quite hypocritical. For his first win, it was a bit of an upset, as he beat out Richard Linklater for Boyhood, with his studio essentially arguing that his one-shot presentation for Birdman outweighed the 12-year effort for Linklater to put together his passion project. That’s all well and good if that’s your honest opinion, but the very next year the For Your Consideration ghouls were out in force arguing for The Revenant by emphasizing the fact that Iñárritu spent TWO years filming in various locations because he wanted to feature as much natural lighting as possible. So, a 12-year project wasn’t worthy, but a two-year one was? That’s what we call some bullshit, and regardless of my feelings for any of the films involved, it still worked, which damns the Academy and its voters just as much as it does Iñárritu.
A lot of the criticism of Bardo stems from the product being seen as self-indulgent. This is 100% true. The main character is an analog of Iñárritu, a lot of the commentary is a projection of his own personal whims without really saying anything, and there’s even a bitter, petty character who comes in midway through to mock his creative choices as a means to preemptively diffuse any legitimate critique. And again, it’s pretty clear that Mexico put this film forward, warts and all, because it knows that Iñárritu and his people have the skills to campaign for hardware in spite of these facts.
But in fairness, The Fabelmans is also self-indulgent. So is Belfast. So is Roma. So is Pain and Glory. Basically any semi-autobiographical film from a great director would qualify for that epithet, so I won’t knock Bardo solely on that front. What I will dock it for is its complete lack of anything resembling a coherent narrative. In all of these other films, where your personal enjoyment of their filmmakers’ respective back pats can vary wildly, it cannot be denied that they all had a story that anyone can follow and make sense of. Bardo intentionally doesn’t do that, opting for a frustrating stream of consciousness that would rather insult you for “not getting it” than make sure it can get its own point across.
For much of the film, I got flashbacks to The Tree of Life, which is one of the most beloved movies of this young century, but one that I absolutely despised, because Terrence Malick decided it was more important to put a bunch of pretty yet pretentious images on the screen than to actually say anything. When I watch a movie for two and a half hours, I shouldn’t have to then go to Wikipedia to figure out what actually happened in it. But where Malick decided to let his camera do all the nonsense talking, Iñárritu more favors the edit. Oh there are a lot of attention-grabbing visuals, don’t get me wrong, but the creative heft is more in using the shot and scene changes to reinforce the intentionally incongruous plot.
And for what it’s worth, Iñárritu’s imagery is certainly memorable. The only things about Malick’s rage-inducing opus that stick with me a decade later are the “Creation of the World” sequence (which was basically a ripoff of 2001: A Space Odyssey) and the kid with the deformed head that was never addressed. Iñárritu, on the other hand, will leave indelible pictures in your head long after the movie mercifully ends. The film opens with a first-person view of our lead watching his shadow extend as he runs, jumps, and flies over a vast desert, followed quickly by a newborn child being stuffed back into the womb (he’s decided to go back because the world is too fucked up) and the umbilical cord getting dragged behind the mother as she leaves the hospital. Other completely messed up moments include a chat between an adult man and his dead father with the younger man’s head superimposed over that of a child actor, Amazon buying the Mexican state of Baja California, and the aforementioned baby partially popping back out of his mother’s vagina during cunnilingus. Credit where it’s due, even when it’s impossible to tell what Iñárritu is saying, you certainly remember how he says it.
In what barely passes for a storyline, Iñárritu’s avatar is Silverio Gama (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles with his family. He is about to become the first Latin American to win a prestigious award in the U.S. for journalistic ethics thanks to his confrontational films where he imagines himself interviewing controversial historical figures like Hernán Cortés. He returns to Mexico, where he’s under immense pressure from politicians (to help ease diplomatic tensions between his two home countries) and local press (who still resent him for leaving their network for bigger and better things). Meanwhile, he’s caught in a sort of microcosm culture war in his own household, as his wife (Griselda Siciliani), adult daughter (Ximena Lamadrid), and teenage son (Iker Sanchez Solano) all have conflicting feelings about their privileged life in America versus what they left behind in Mexico.
After skipping out at the last minute for an interview with his former TV colleague Luis (Francisco Rubio), Silverio is confronted at local party thrown in his honor. Luis drunkenly calls him out for his elitism, high-minded nonsense, and for betraying their friendship and selling out to the U.S. This is just another of Silverio’s mounting anxieties, leading him to question if he’s ever done anything worthwhile in his life, and whether he’s been an adequate husband, son, and father.
As midlife crises go, this is all pretty run of the mill, and it’s clear that the James Joyce/William Faulkner-esque visual stream of consciousness motif is doing some really heavy lifting to make it appear to be more important than it is. At first it’s kind of intriguing to see long, unbroken shots of Silverio returning to his old TV studio, only to have the interview turn into a panic attack nightmare, then to practically smash cut to his home — the design of which is meant to look like it’s not entirely finished being built — and watch him pursue his wife in a bit of ribald foreplay, even though as he passes to each room she’s nowhere to be found for several moments, and then to jump back to the past where his son Lorenzo is still a young child playing with his pet axolotls, before returning to present-day coitus and waking up to an argument with Lorenzo as a teen. This is what I mean when I say that Iñárritu’s more focused on the editing, as the quick changes in scene and character require a ton of seamless transitions. And while it often comes off as maddeningly incoherent, the vision was executed as intended because of these advanced editing techniques.
But after a while things become exceedingly tedious, as it’s more and more apparent that all of the optics are in service of nothing. There’s no lesson, no journey, no real literary or artistic trajectory or any kind. After an hour we’re firmly back in Malick territory, with Iñárritu basically washing his hands of the whole thing and telling the audience, “It’s not my fault if you don’t get it,” (a sentiment sadly echoed by other filmmakers speaking in his defense) even though as the storyteller it’s his job to make sure we do. Despite all the sadness put on the screen, the only tragedy is that once we realize this is going nowhere, there’s still an hour and a half left in the film, and we’re begging for the few plot beats that we know about to get themselves over with so we can go home. There is eventually an explanation for all of this, one that thankfully does make sense, but only because of personal associations I’ve had with people in similar situations (one even named his band after it), and even then, it’s nowhere near satisfying considering all the pompous nonsense we all have to endure to get to it.
It’s a shame because unlike Malick’s usual bullshit, you can actually see the moments where Iñárritu could have made this great. Silverio’s documentary style is illustrated in one sequence with a mountain of dead bodies that he climbs, only for the set design to eventually reveal itself when one of the background actors breaks character. I think the idea of seeing someone try to make this type of bombastic, gonzo interview series with long dead figures as a form of non-fiction filmmaking is utterly fascinating, and if anyone can pull it off, it’s Iñárritu. I like the prospect of a man at the downslope of his career coming to terms with the good and bad of everything he’s done, and facing the consequences from those he had to step over to make something of himself. Hell, I would have been happy with some more time with the axolotls, because those little amphibians are awesome and adorable as hell!
But these isolated bits of genius are few and far between, and we have to wade through a lot of inanity and banality that’s only surreal for its own sake to get to them. And once they’re over, we’re back to meaningless scenes that try to seem profound while having all the substance of a wet fart, like a dismissive U.S. Customs agent of Hispanic descent telling Silverio and his family that they don’t have the right to call America their home because they’re not citizens and demanding they speak English like the reddest of rednecks. Is it a statement on American hypocrisy, especially when Silverio escalates the situation by calling in the agent’s Asian-American manager? Is it a commentary on xenophobia, or an exploration of what it truly means to assimilate into our national melting pot? Or is it just a waste of time until we get to the next vignette? Iñárritu has proven himself as a visual artist, so it boggles the mind that he goes for the third option so many times. And it’s even more baffling that Mexico is gambling on the goodwill he’s engendered as a creative to try to win the International Feature category, rather than submitting something that doesn’t actively insult your intelligence.
At least the axolotls are still cool.
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