By Michael Kalafatis
“Life is just a brief series of senseless events. You must surrender to it.”
After winning the Oscar for best director for two consecutive years for Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015) Alejandro González Iñárritu returns after seven years with Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, his most personal and surreal film.
Bardo is about Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) a Mexican journalist who has become a documentary filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. The film shows his return to Mexico where he starts to have existential crisis, and his reality starts to intertwine with his dreams. The word Bardo in Tibetan Buddhism means a transitional stage between death and rebirth, that is the reason the film sometimes feels like a lucid dream or a surreal journey through memories.
Iñárritu’s statement for the 79th Venice International Film Festival (where Bardo took part in the main competition), makes Bardo‘s themes easier to comprehend: “A few years ago, I suddenly realized the road ahead of me was much shorter than the one I had left behind. Inevitably, I started to explore it backwards and inwards. Both paths are elusive and labyrinthine. Time and space enmesh. The narrative that makes up ‘our life’ is no more than a false mirage constructed of events experienced subjectively by our limited nervous system. Memory lacks truth. It only possesses emotional conviction.”
Bardo it’s a very esoteric and oneiric film, reminiscent of Federico Fellini’s art films of 1960s like 8½ (1963) and Juliet of the Spirits (1965). Bardo could be seen as an autobiography, because a lot of things that happens to Gama happened to Iñárritu as well. Like the opening sequence where we see a shadow in a point of view shot (POV) running and then jumping very high until he disappears only to reappears and starts to run again. This sequence is a recurring dream that Iñárritu has had for many years.
Iñárritu’s film has a very immersive direction and cinematography, even though sometimes the frequent use of fish lens becomes tiring. The main issue of the film is its screenplay, it’s not very focus, it tries to convey too much information and symbolisms. The story of Bardo is divided into two parts: the dramatic moments and the surreal moments. The dramatic moments are the best part of the film, especially when it’s about Gama and his family. But the contrasting moments of surrealism don’t compliment the film, some are done well and make sense in the overall themes of the film, but others make the film bloated and a chore to get through without adding anything substantial to the narrative of the film.
Bardo is told in a non-linear way, a favourite trope of Iñárritu, who utilised it mostly in his “Trilogy of Death” films Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), all three films tell interwoven stories that are linked by similar themes. These films show how capable Iñárritu is in creating effective films with great dramatic performances, a thing that is also true in Bardo, but there is abundance of surrealism and symbolism that make the film’s themes harder to decipher.