"Bardo" is alternately dazzling and aggravating

AThe world will claim to love a great, ambitious director, but it doesn’t really. There’s something in us that makes us more inclined to support the failed director, the one who makes an intimate film that quietly admires us, than the one who announces his cinematic genius with the subtlety of a flare.

Enter To Alejandro G. Iñárritu Bardo: A False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, with a loud crack and a long, smoky noise. In this ambitious semi-autobiographical dream riff, Daniel Jimenez Cacho stars as Silverio, a sometimes arrogant, sometimes clumsy documentary filmmaker who is about to win a major American award for his work. Silverio was born in Mexico but has lived mostly in Los Angeles, a place he calls home. But is it really home? This is one of the big questions that hovers over the film like a bird of prey. Silverio found success in a bigger lake than the one he left in Mexico, and his former colleagues there resented him for it. His children, twenty-year-old Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) and teenager Lorenzo (Iker Sanchez), are extremely Americanized. And there’s a big, haunting heartbreak in his life: he and his wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) have lost a child, a loss that has practically punched a hole in him.

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Daniel Jimenez Cacho (Courtesy of Netflix)

Daniel Jimenez Cacho

Courtesy of Netflix

This is the simple summary of Bardo. Describing its more trippy, existential-spin-art qualities is a bit trickier. The film opens with the birth of Lucia, who appears to be a healthy baby boy. But the doctor learns that the baby has other wishes, which he then conveys to the mother: The baby does not want to come out; the world is too messed up. The doctor shoves the baby back into the birth canal, and that’s apparently it—until many years later, when the reluctant baby reappears, untimely, just as Silverio is about to have oral sex. Then it is his tasked with pushing the little intruder back as if putting a memory in a drawer. As you can imagine, this is a big mood killer.

Nothing is certain in Silverio’s world of rubber, which continues to stretch, shift, and spin through space and time. In Mexico, Silverio attends a large party thrown in his honor; he is the first Latin American to win this major prestigious American award, and the locals want to honor him. But when called to the stage, he despairs and dives into the men’s room, where his deceased father, large as life and fully alive, greets him warmly. Silverio’s father is a giant to him in every way, a presence he desperately misses. Iñárritu illustrates this with a clear point of view: Silverio’s body has suddenly shrunk to the size of a child, while his head – complete with its shaggy beard and perpetually despairing expression – is the normal adult version. What adult hasn’t experienced this at some point – either the feeling of returning to childhood, or the wish that one could?

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Griselda Siciliani as Lucia (right) (SeoJu Park/Netflix)

Griselda Siciliani as Lucia (right)

SeoJu Park/Netflix

Bardo it’s not always that easy and it’s often exhausting. Iñárritu has a lot of thoughts and feelings, and he obviously wanted to cram them into one film. (The painting was co-authored by Nicolas Giacobone, who also collaborated with Iñárritu on Beautiful and Birdman.) Bardo was three hours long when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in early September; Iñárritu has since cut 22 minutes off him, although that may not be enough. The picture still meanders and drags, and sometimes Iñárritu’s lofty ideas come out like a hot-air balloon that deflates and gets stuck in the trees. You wish he could get on with things already.

Still, there are some magnificent visions Bardo. The great cinematographer Darius Conji helps Iñárritu realize his ideas, the most spectacular of which is a fantasy sequence set in the heart of Mexico City, where Silverio confronts the ruthless Hernán Cortés, standing over a pile of dead native Mexicans like it’s nothing. Silverio’s feelings about his birthplace may be conflicted, but in the end, he knows exactly what his loyalty is due to. These feelings are especially cruel when it comes to the jagged, exploitative kinship between the United States, his adopted home, and Mexico, the place where a part of his heart will always live, whether he likes it or not. (One of the film’s bitterest, sharpest jokes is the revelation that Amazon is making a deal to buy the state of Baja California.)

Late in the movie, Bardo becomes less fantastical and more personal territory; the texture of the film becomes warmer and more inviting. And even if you don’t feel much for Silverio for most of the movie—he’s pretty insufferable—he becomes touchingly human at this point. Some of the sights along the way are dazzling, of course, but Iñárritu makes us work to get there. It’s hard to tell if he’s fully trusting his audience’s intelligence and perception, or deliberately complicating things to make it harder for us to deal with. The truth is probably somewhere in between, an in-between state that even Iñárritu can’t define.

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