Dancing With Myself

This article appeared in the November 23, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2022)

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s latest feature, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, opens with a POV shot. The camera embarks on a running head start, leaps into the air, and floats for a few moments before returning to terra firma. If the sequence captures the emotional state of Iñárritu’s thinly veiled alter ego, Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho)—a man so disconnected from his professional life that he’s barely present even when his feet are planted squarely on the ground—it also, almost knowingly, offers Iñárritu’s critics a cheeky metaphor to lob against the filmBardo is the kind of smugly self-aware work that believes it’s clever (or funny) because it anticipates its own critique. But Iñárritu deserves zero credit for beating me to the observation that his riff on Fellini’s 8½ (1963) fails to take flight. It barely even flutters.

This sprawling, decadent yawn follows Silverio’s existential malaise as he prepares to receive some prestigious North American journalism prize. A Mexican-born bleeding-heart documentarian whose work explores (or exploits?) the poor and the downtrodden, Silverio grapples with a metaphysical crisis. His guilt over his affluent, sellout lifestyle; his self-loathing about his professional success; his regrets regarding his parenting; and his sense of diasporic displacement are all narrativized into a dreamlike series of events. Choreographed dance sequences and spiritual, desert-set visions alternate with intimate two-person conversations Silverio has with his wife (Griselda Siciliani), his children (Íker Sánchez Solano and Ximena Lamadrid), and various ghosts from his familial past and Mexican history, as well as myriad enemies and strangers. Days and weeks skip backward and forward: in a scene that blurs the line between hallucination and constructed artifice, Hernán Cortés suddenly appears on a pile of corpses so Silverio can challenge him. In another, Silverio chases loose salamanders on a Santa Monica train one minute, and the next minute he witnesses a teenage cadet wrapped in the Mexican flag plunging off the roof of a castle in a recreation of the Battle of Chapultepec.

These invocations of Mexican history and engagements with contemporary media discourse feel like superficial flirtations. In another impish nod to his critics, Iñárritu acknowledges that his approach might be considered ostentatious or indulgent through the throwaway jabs Silverio’s film crew take at our protagonist, and even more so in a broadside attack from a former colleague of Silverio’s, an embittered journalist named Luis (Francisco Rubio). It’s not self-indulgent for Iñárritu to reckon with his ego or accomplishments. It’s Bardo’s execution—its grandiose tone and painfully earnest dialogue—that stymies the introspection necessary to yield any worthy insights. Vanity projects such as this one require vulnerability to elevate the big swings—a peek into the ugly, unflattering aspects of the artist’s psyche that Iñárritu seems unwilling to concede without redemptive caveats.

Luis appears roughly halfway into the film to accurately diagnose the various deficiencies (the forced oneiric imagery; the recursive narcissism) of Silverio’s most recent work—which is entitled False Chronicles of a Handful of Truths and basically comprises what the audience has seen so far in Bardo. Some thin-skinned reviewers took offense at the characterization of the vindictive theater critic played by Lindsay Duncan in Birdman, who, in an especially polemical scene, promises to pan the new play from blockbuster-star-turned-playwright Riggan (Michael Keaton) before she’s even seen it. Unlike that fictional poison-pen writer, who at least partly catalyzes Riggan’s (sketchy) emotional arc, Bardo’s Luis exists simply to be silenced. (Literally—in one of the film’s many hoary moments of magical realism, he loses the ability to speak.) Silverio stands up for himself and rails against Luis’s talk show, which ostensibly thrives on “clickbait” and viral attention. Iñárritu launches these preemptive attacks on potential critics in the guise of examining his own insecurities, but the gesture only exposes the film’s insincerity and lack of self-awareness.

Even Darius Khondji’s typically dexterous photography cannot salvage the failures of Iñárritu’s script and direction. Yes, choice shots of the desert and the ocean have a certain gravity to them, and there’s a method behind the roving camera (even if it often feels like hand-me-down Terrence Malick), but Khondji’s work hews too closely to Iñárritu’s literal-minded imagery—and the director is incapable of letting his images speak for themselves. During a conversation between Silverio and a vision of his dead father, Iñárritu shrinks his on-screen stand-in to the size of a child, albeit with a creepy, adult-sized bobblehead, underlining (in bright red pen) Silverio’s permanent feelings of adolescence when faced with family. A late revelation that Silverio has been in a prolonged coma even offers an explanation for the character’s fractured reality, as if Iñárritu’s garish attempts at surrealism were too complex for audiences to accept at face value.

For such a self-consciously phantasmagorical filmBardo approaches success only at its most straightforward. The conversations between Silverio and his children about their diasporic roots and class status—such as when Silverio’s son lambasts him for depicting Mexicans in stereotypically perilous circumstances—can feel didactic, but at the very least they’re honest. When the family demands that a Mexican customs officer apologize to them for insisting that the United States is not their home, one glimpses the film’s clumsy potential for capturing an immigrant’s perpetual outrage. Iñárritu clearly feels like a man without a country, a feeling likely exacerbated by the fact that he’s a Mexican-born filmmaker who has garnered four Oscars for English-language, American-set movies. (Bardo is his first to be made primarily in Mexico since his 2000 feature debut, Amores Perros.)

Yet any frank meditation on the representational ethics and neocolonial implications of that situation feels stunted by Iñárritu’s ponderous sensibility. It’s not just that Bardo comes across as pretentious—plenty of works earn their affectation, driven by a rigorous indifference to the need for approval. It’s that Iñárritu wants his surface-level, faux-profound examinations of “the human condition” to be loved. He imbues his works with a grating insecurity that can’t be sated by critical acclaim, box-office receipts, or awards attention. Worthwhile self-indulgence requires a fearlessness that he cannot muster because he’s fixated on perceived detractors. Watching Iñárritu’s films reminds me of comic Marc Maron’s description of listening to the Dave Matthews Band: “it’s like an aggravated boredom.”

Vikram Murthi is a contributing writer to The Nation and the editor of Downtime Magazine. His freelance film writing has appeared in Filmmaker Magazine, Reverse Shot, Vulture, and sundry other publications.

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