‘Bardo,’ a Borderline Masterpiece, Mixes Pleasure With Provocation – KQED

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’Tis the season for head-scratchingly ambitious, indulgent, overblown and overlong movies. Thank — I mean curse — the Academy Awards, increasingly irrelevant as hallmarks of excellence and boosters of box office, but still industrial-strength catnip for sundry egos in this business we call show.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant, is not one to hide his light under a bushel. But he also understands the pleasure of movie-watching — that is, he honors the audience — by subsuming his idiosyncratic concerns in kinetic, riveting narratives.
Iñárritu’s extraordinary new film, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, begins streaming Dec. 16 on Netflix following a one-week Oscar-qualifying theatrical release last month. The plot revolves around a successful 50-something Mexican filmmaker, long based in Los Angeles, who returns with his family to his native country for something akin to a national celebration. The autobiographical parallels are obvious, although Iñárritu makes Silverio a documentary filmmaker rather than a Hollywood director.

The movie’s subtitle is an insightful definition of autobiographical narrative films, such as this year’s The Fabelmans and Armageddon Time (and Bardo, of course). It’s also a pretty good working definition of documentaries, although that’s one of the few thorny subjects Iñárritu doesn’t address.
In Iñárritu’s hands, the journey back to Mexico throws open the door to a dazzling multiplicity of personal, historical and political themes — ultimately including, in a nod to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, its protagonist’s mortality. Silverio (a steady, solid Daniel Giménez Cacho) is damned proud of his career. But his erstwhile former friends in TV journalism pointedly note — even as they slap his back and toast his accomplishments — his betrayals, such as leaving Mexico for the U.S.; his assimilation into an upscale SoCal lifestyle; and professional glory accrued from the suffering of innocents (the subjects of his social-issue docs).
The initial scene of these accusations is a flamboyantly choreographed appearance on a daytime talk show where Silverio is primed for a fawning, softball chat. More slings and arrows — and meticulously executed tracking shots — await at an enormous open-air Mexico City party that marks both the high point of Silverio’s trip and the wonderfully pleasurable hub of the movie. Iñárritu makes us a guest at this frenetic bash rather than an observer, using his considerable talents and budget to insinuate us into Silverio’s complicated, conflicted and crumbling state of mind. (Let’s just say that Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is Iñárritu’s and be done with it.)

It’s worth noting that this prolonged centerpiece of Bardo also offers an instructive contrast to the interminable Roaring ’20s party-slash-orgy scene at a Hollywood mansion that opens Damien Chazelle’s marathon, misbegotten Babylon (please see the first paragraph). Intended to set the tone and introduce the characters, that scene is a carnival of sophomoric titillation and shock value that sadly serves as a textbook case of spectacle for its own sake.
But Iñárritu is quite capable of going over the top himself (ahem, see the first paragraph), notably in a pair of surreal set pieces that parachute history into the present: a battle during the Mexican Revolution staged in the U.S. Embassy, and a philosophical conversation about colonialism and its legacy between Silverio and Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés astride a mountain of corpses. It may be advisable, therefore — and it pains me to say this because home viewing is detrimental to the movie experience under the best circumstances — to watch Bardo, which runs more than two and a half hours, over two nights.
In a theater, Bardo’s abundance of themes, and parade of large-scale scenes, were overwhelming but not indigestible. Especially if you adjourned with friends afterward to discuss and dissect Iñárritu’s smorgasbord of how-did-he-do-that images and occasionally bewildering metaphors.

For example, the movie begins with a point-of-view shot of a man walking through a vast barren landscape, the afternoon sun projecting his shadow in front of him. The shadow (the man) jumps, is briefly airborne and descends to earth. A few more steps and he takes off again, remaining aloft this time. Is it a man? A bird? A Birdman, I submit, referencing the movie that propelled Iñárritu to stardom. (The unpopulated terrain likely represents the crossing or the border between Mexico and the United States.)
Iñárritu has thrown everything into Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, possibly figuring this is the last moment when a streamer will write a check big enough to cover his epic vision. Not everything in the film works as intended, but Bardo is as ambitious, exciting, pleasurable and confounding as any movie released in 2022. That’s a decent working definition of a flawed masterpiece.

‘Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths’ begins streaming on Netflix Dec. 16. Details here.

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