Producers: Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Stacy Perskie Kaniss Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu Screenplay: Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid, Íker Solano, Luz Jiménez, Luis Couturier, Andrés Almeida, Clementina Guadarrama, Jay O. Sanders, Francisco Rubio, Fabiola Guajardo, Noé Hernández and Ivan Massagué Distributor: Netflix
It’s sometimes difficult to determine exactly the point at which directorial flamboyance turns into mere self-indulgence, or even if it does (does it happen in “Citizen Kane,” or “Touch of Evil,” or “The Trial”?), but by the end of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo,” you’ll feel confident in saying that in this case it has. The Mexican-born director has always been prone to extravagance, but here he takes the proclivity to extremes, in terms of running-time (more than two-and-a-half hours, even after some cuts) as well as its feverish flights of imagination and pretention. Even the subtitle, like the one he appended to his Oscar winner “Birdman,” cheekily underscores a claim to importance.
The film is yet another attempt to emulate Federico Fellini’s 1963 “8½,” a masterpiece of introspection that’s proven cinematic catnip for other directors anxious to engage in similar exercises in surrealistic self-examination. As his surrogate Iñárritu presents Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who left his career as a TV host in Mexico to go to the United States, where he became a celebrated documentary filmmaker; at one points a clip from one of his works is shown, in which an incarcerated drug lord called El Ajolote (Noé Hernández) discourses creepily on his relationship to the wider society.
The amphibian motif of his nickname is central to the explanatory context of “Bardo,” which is a term in Tibetan Buddhism referring to the state between death and rebirth, though in Spanish it means a poet or singer of tales (also applicable here). One of the early images in the film is of Gama riding a Los Angeles commuter train with a plastic bag filled with water and a number of axolotls in his lap. The sequence is resumed late in the film to present a very literal explication of the fractured cavalcade of memories and experiences that have intervened, introduced by the striking introductory image of a human shadow sweeping across a barren, rocky landscape—just the first of many extraordinary visuals contrived by the director and cinematographer Darius Khondji, all accompanied by an eerie score by Iñárritu and Bryce Dessner and an evocative sound design by Nicolas Becker and Martín Hernández. (Eugenio Caballero’s production design and Anna Terrazas’ costumes are no less impressive.)
What comes in the long middle reveals several preoccupations. One is Gama’s obsession over the death of his first child, a boy who—in the feverish imagination of his father and mother—is depicted as refusing to emerge from the womb, with the umbilical cord stretching down a hallway. Gama and his wife Lucía (Griselda Siciliani), along with their grown children Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) and teen Lorenzo (Íker Solano), have never truly come to terms with the loss, but will finally achieve a sort of closure.
A second is the contrast between Gama’s love of his native country and his guilt over leaving it for greener professional pastures, and between the ease of his departure and the struggle of immigrants now to make it across the border. Much involves him returning with his family to Mexico to accept an award. On his way he hears a news report that Amazon is buying Baja California, and then he meets with the American ambassador (Jay O. Sanders) at Castillo de Chapultepec, where suddenly the battle that occurred there in 1847 between American forces and young Mexican soldiers explodes around them again. Those Mexican soldiers will briefly reappear in a contentious scene toward the close when the family returns to LAX and a Mexican-American security officer (Omar Leyva) brusquely tells them they cannot claim the U.S. as their home. Endemic class differences are also portrayed in a scene in which the family’s maid Hortensia (Clementina Guadarrama) is turned away from a pool at an upscale resort.
There’s also a particularly nightmarish sequence in which Gama winds through the streets of a city where pedestrians suddenly drop to the pavement, though not dead, and then finds a pile of corpses with Hernán Cortés sitting atop them; after he and the conquistador converse for a while, the corpses begin to rise and leave, revealing that the scene is the shoot of the very episode we’re watching. A similar conceit occurs elsewhere, in an early sequence when Gama visit the set of a popular TV program called “Supongamos” (“Let’s Suppose”), hosted by Luis (Francisco Rubio), the colleague he abandoned years before, only to sit mute before a laughing audience as Luis lambastes him for, among other things, a pretentious film that from the description seems to be the one we’re watching. Later it’s revealed that Gama never showed up for the interview as Luis comes to the awards party to berate the movie as “a mishmash of pointless scenes…It feels stole, plagiarized.”
In a deserted restroom at that same party, Gama is visited by the spirit of his dead father Usandro (Luis Couturier), and morphs a child, but with Silverio’s grown-up head on its shoulders. (The visual effects throughout were supervised by Guillaume Rocheron and Olaf Wendt.) When Silverio complains “Success has been my biggest failure,” his father’s curt replay is “Depression is a bourgeois ailment.” Translation: “Get over it.” Gama also visits his lonely, ill mother Maria (Luz Jiménez), enfeebled by dementia, who can barely remember the past. But she joins him in a finale where he joins immigrants heading northward, who may or may not miraculously disappear along the way.
What is one to make of all this, which is only the tip of the iceberg in a film rich with hypnotic images but groaning under the weight of its own self-importance? One might be inclined to agree that its mesmerizing but chaotic content is meant to reflect nihilistic comments that recur periodically along with way—“”Life is nothing but a series of idiotic images,” one character argues, and Silverio’s father observes, “Life is just a brief series of senseless events.” Certainly the arguably random arrangement of scenes as edited by Iñárritu and Mónica Salazar will suggest to some that such is the case.
But it’s doubtful that Iñárritu intends “Bardo,” another of his magna opera, is such a dismissive way. He has something definite on his mind, though the film raises so many issues without presenting them in a definitely hierarchical fashion that it’s frustrating to try to figure out exactly what. One thing is certain: though most of the cast is just passable, Cacho spares nothing in his effort to represent the director to the utmost. That his performance is often over-the-top as a result is perhaps beside the point.
“Bardo” is being shown on Netflix, which is a pity; some of us had the opportunity to see it in a theatre with a huge screen and state-of-the-art sound system, which is what it really deserves—because it’s as an immersive visual and aural experience that it primarily merits attention.