What is an Alejandro G. Iñárritu film if it not powered by a dizzying sense of movement? The now-iconic sequence from the Mexican director’s debut Amores Perros follows a car crash with such propulsive energy and style that you almost forget to breathe. Amores Perros was the birth of a major filmmaking talent that would take the Mexican director further away from his roots and plant his genius in Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Emma Stone- the biggest names have worked with him. Iñárritu has gone on to win consecutive Oscars for Best Director. His films are unmistakable for their insane technical brilliance matched with equal nonchalance and bravado, bursting with energy and speed. So when he arrives after seven years with Bardo, expectations are a little too high for comfort. (Also read: The Banshees of Inisherin movie review: Comedy never hurt this good)
Bardo is acutely personal and sees the director returning to his homeland after two decades of international success. Tantalising also is the same competitive vein with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma- an artsy retracing of personal spaces that was successfully Oscar-baited by Netflix. Bardo has dollops of that personal indulgence mixed with the director’s trademark technical brilliance, and Netflix has baited on this project as well. Yet in Bardo, Iñárritu is demanding like never before- this is an occasionally rewarding film that revels in contemplating, prioritising patience instead of movement. It is unlike anything the filmmaker has made before- starting with one of the most deliberately nauseating sequence of a childbirth where the newborn communicates with the doctor that he doesn’t want to come out in the world because the world is not worth living anymore. So the doctors push him back through the vagina of the woman. She comes out of the operation chamber with the umbilical cord trailing behind- a long, unwinding thread that is cut short as the title appears.
Bardo arrives on Netflix after being trimmed short by 22 minutes- following the mixed reactions the film received when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Still, at 174 minutes of optimum pastiche threading identity and expression, artistic integrity and clickbait formality, self and the nation- Bardo finds Iñárritu at his most playfully narcissistic. Bardo follows Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a documentary filmmaker who is about to receive a major award by the American government for his work, and it steadily gives him some space to ruminate over his own crises at large as he returns back to Mexico for a while. His wife Camilla (Ximena Lamadrid) is understanding, yet Silverio persists in telling how everything matters as long as it pertains to what he thinks, not what he feels. Reality exists as no more than fiction for him- and it is this interrogation of reality and truth that forms the crux of Bardo. The recreation of the conquest of the Aztecs- fantastically shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, is meant to be more- but it becomes insufferably pretentious.
Familiarity with Federico Fellini’s 81/2 are obvious, more so in Bardo’s hopeless mediation on life and death, art and pleasure. Yet, in more ways than one, Bardo never reaches its deepest fears and only hovers around it to find new depths of banality. This is not the first film that Iñárritu has made that asks these big questions, but certainly the most disappointing one. There’s heavy-handedness in the way the nonlinear, long sequences pan out, which become impulsive, stupid and tedious. Iñárritu’s concerns float above providing any groundwork for the character themselves- as we are rarely given any insight into Silverio’s self-pitying, unkempt journey. Iñárritu simply projects his calculated, breathtakingly staged sequences one after the other, creating a distance away from the archetype rather than bridging it. The more you want it to make sense, the more it mixes its beverage of self doubt. Silverio cannot defend himself and cannot expect us to do so after spending all this time walking and showing up for his unending hallucinations.
The recurring dream sequences becomes repetitive after a point, as Silverio simply resists to move on. At one point he asks a friend what he thought about the documentary, and he says, “Half the time, I wanted to crack up, the other half I was dying of boredom. It’s supposed to be metaphorical, but it lacks poetic inspiration.” The scene is eerily reminiscent of a heated exchange between artist and critic in Birdman, but not half as emblematic. Did Iñárritu anticipate a similar response to Bardo? Given his recent remarks about the poor reception to the film owing to a racist undercurrent, it might be safe to say yes. Despite that self-congratulatory remark defending a self-congratulatory work, the above response applies to Bardo quite aptly. Bardo is far away from containing a handful of truths it can only dream about them.