Deep in his slumbering subconscious, Alejandro González Iñárritu dreams of acceptance speeches. This is the big takeaway of Bardo, a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, a long and lavish drama that dares to ask: will he or won’t he (accept a lifetime achievement award)? For Iñárritu, the awards circuit is a second home—a wellspring of pleasure, and also dislocation. Iñárritu was the first Mexican filmmaker to receive the Best Director award at Cannes, and the first to be nominated for an Academy Award. He is one of only three directors in history to score back-to-back Oscars, alongside John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz. BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Directors Guild Awards—no one else has so thoroughly wooed the hearts and minds of the 21st-century film industry, or at least its voting members.
But how does Iñárritu really feel? To the extent that Bardo gestures at a plot, it follows a 60-year-old Mexican journalist named Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), whose fame and accomplishment are roughly equivalent to Iñárritu’s own, as is his sleek, artfully rumpled moroseness. Even after committing to a very public homecoming (and the black-sheep status that goes with it), Silverio has mixed feelings about getting onstage to receive his big award. The character’s anxiety is paralyzing and, in the end, superfluous: at the climax he’s delivered from his obligations—and from the soul-crushing burdens of waking life itself— by a massive stroke.
As Bardo’s speech drew near, it was inevitable that my mind would turn to another awards show: the infamous (to me and only me) 2015 Golden Globes broadcast. Birdman (2014) won Best Screenplay and Best Actor for Michael Keaton that night, a meager haul compared to the four Oscars that followed, including Best Picture. For nearly eight years I have had a single image from the show lodged in my head: Iñárritu and his trio of co-writers—Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone and Armando Bó—ascend to the stage, the four men gather at the microphone, and then, for some reason, the maestro plucks the jaunty, tilted fedora from Bó’s head and places it on his own, before hogging the group’ collective mic time. Maybe the theft was premeditated. But as someone who by that point considered Iñárritu a malign presence in world cinema, I couldn’t help but treat the hat-snatching as a symbol of stolen valor, the YouTube footage a totem akin to the Zapruder film, a travesty to replay over and over in my own private bardo in perpetuity.
Perhaps I am an extreme case. But as acclaimed as Iñárritu has continued to be, he has always gotten under people’s skin. It’s a quality he’s obviously aware of, since long passages of Bardo are devoted to Silverio’s friends, contemporaries, and even his teenaged children calling him out on his arrogance and narcissism. Why, they wonder, did he leave Mexico if he loved it so much? Cornered by a fellow filmmaker who found his most recent work pretentious and hypocritical, our hero magically mutes the diatribe before walking away. Nor is this a new motif: one of the most memorable exchanges in the Birdman screenplay—the one that led to the hat incident—featured Michael Keaton’s authorial stand-in castigating a skeptical (female) critic as a “lazy fucker.” If Iñárritu longs to have his masochism and refute it, too, Bardo can be seen as an overfull-length elaboration on the theme, an entire movie about a man desperate to get the last, measuredly self-deprecating word.
Subsidized by the generous debt-carriers at Netflix, Bardo is a vanity project about vanity—officially Iñárritu’s seventh feature to date, though spiritually his eighth and a half. Barely veiled self-portraiture has emerged as a major theme in film and literature over the past few years, but what sets, say, Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza), James Gray (Armageddon Time), and Steven Spielberg (The Fabelmans) apart is that they designed their films primarily as remembrances of things past—as evocations of childhood and the primal scenes of their makers’ artistry. Bardo, on the other hand, is aggressively present-tense, if ultimately too self-involved to register as contemporary. (Or, for that matter, politically—beyond a good throwaway joke about Amazon being in negotiations to purchase Baja, California.) Cacho, who was brilliant as a spiritually parched conquistador in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, is well cast as a man cruising past middle age on autopilot; his choice to play Silverio like a passenger in his own star vehicle is apt given the film’s underlying theme of psychic drift.
In Lars Von Trier’s 2018 horror-comedy The House That Jack Built—still the best of the recent metafictional epics, and easily the funniest—clips from the director’s actual films serve as vivid reminders of his achievements. In Bardo, we’re shown only fragments of Silverio’s documentaries, including an interview with an incarcerated drug lord who claims to be the true source of authority in a country dominated by cartels and their corrupt elected enablers. The implication of this sequence is twofold: that Silverio’s work is controversial because it speaks uncomfortable truths to (and against) power, and that by opting to move to the United States—away from the corruption he’s helped to uncover—he has renounced his role as the voice of the nation. Hassled at the border despite his wealth and harangued by colleagues over his allegiances, Silverio is a man caught between countries and cultures. But the primal tension is metaphysical, as the film’s title helpfully points out: Silverio is suspended somewhere between life and death.
Iñárritu and his cinematographer Darius Khondji conceive of this mental landscape as a purgatory with endlessly permeable boundaries. Magical realist flourishes abound: a crowded train compartment is flooded with salamanders; an umbilical cord stretches the length of a hospital hallway; a porn magazine centerfold sprouts egg yolks in place of breasts; the streets of Mexico City are emptied out, only to become strewn shortly thereafter with scores of fallen bodies. Khondji, who helped establish David Fincher as American film’s reigning Prince of Darkness through his work on Se7en, is in his element in Bardo: his camera roams through the shadowy corridors and dimly lit rooms that comprise the majority of Silverio’s psychic space. Still, the virtuosity feels second-hand: it’s clear that even at his most dazzling, Khondji is imitating the weightless camera calisthenics of Iñárritu’s supreme collaborator Emanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. It’s a sophisticated visual language with an unfortunate—if unintentional—subtext, suggesting an artist who hovers over the people and places he depicts.
But for all his emotional and intellectual distance from human misery, Iñárritu has always been fond of wallowing in it: to paraphrase All About Eve, his movies feature everything but the bloodhounds snapping at his characters’ rear ends. After Iñárritu left a successful career in advertising, his first film, Amores Perros (2000)—a scabrous Mexico City triptych written by Guillermo Arriaga and featuring actual dog-on-human violence—caused a minor sensation and established a template for saleably bleak transnational festival cinema. Amores Perros was hard-edged compared to the lugubrious work that followed: 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), and especially 2010’s lyrical atrocity exhibition Biutiful, whose lumpen protagonist, played to the hilt by Javier Bardem, shuffles through Barcelona with a tumor in his prostate and the deaths of dozens of migrant workers on his conscience.
The line between exploitation and empathy is very fine indeed, and when Iñárritu isn’t simply crossing it, he uses sleight of hand to make it disappear. In a 2010 essay in Film Comment, Glenn Kenny wrote that the director’s perspective “doesn’t so much come out and congratulate the audience as it does Iñárritu himself, for his seemingly self-proclaimed insistence on looking at all the pain of human existence with an unflinching gaze.” What is most striking about Iñárritu’s career, though, isn’t this fanatical commitment to agony, but rather the startling degree of creative and technical freedom he has had to pursue it. 21 Grams, also written by Arriaga (and drawing from the same bag of dramaturgical tricks as Amores Perros), was infested with A-list stars like Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio del Toro, drawn like moths to the fresh incandescence of Iñárritu’s reputation. Their emotive powers were a necessary requirement for a movie depicting characters spurting geysers of blood, sweat, and tears at regular intervals, a movie that also happened to be named for—there is no other way to put this—the weight of the human soul.
The meticulously dingy cinematography and splintered chronology of 21 Grams embodied early-aughts American arthouse aesthetics with a vengeance, right down to the tragic, post–September 11 subtext about leveraging violent retribution against forgiveness. (The closing shot of an empty swimming pool delivered Antonioni on deep discount—a view from the shallow end). The perception of Iñárritu as a young, double-barreled master flashing style alongside a social conscience was inescapable at this time, hence his recruitment for the omnibus film 11’09″1 September 11, which solicited shorts running exactly eleven minutes, nine seconds, and one frame. His entry, which overlaid real audio of the attacks on the Twin Towers on a black screen—interspersed with brief, muted footage of people jumping from the roof—possessed a brutal effectiveness. Was the whole thing a shock tactic, or an honest attempt to wrestle with representation? The closing title card, which called to mind the prefab, ersatz ambiguity of a chain email, didn’t invite the most generous readings. “Does God’s Light Guide Us or Blind Us?” it asked, in Arabic and Latin characters.
For Babel, Iñárritu capitalized on the network-narrative shtick of Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning Crash, only with bigger stars (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) and Greater Los Angeles swapped out for the world at large. Set simultaneously in San Diego, Casablanca, Tijuana, and Tokyo, the film traces banal connections between stunning locations and broken characters: Moroccan children accidentally injure an American tourist with a rifle proffered to their father by a Japanese businessman, and so on. Predictably embraced by critics who bought into its brow-furrowed seriousness, the film traces an obvious, po-faced, politically toothless arc from catastrophe to forgiveness; today its most notable aspect is its slanted visual language, which submerges Third World settings in freneticism while keeping the American backdrops (and movie stars) in clean, stable focus.
Never one to underplay a scene (or overestimate his audience), Iñárritu is an auteur-de-force; whatever its scale or ostensible subject matter, the true subject of his work is its maker’s brilliance, manifested variably as a matter of structural gamesmanship (the intersecting plots of Amores Perros, 21 Grams, or Babel), formal gimmickry (the sound design of the September 11 short; the sinuous long takes of Birdman and The Revenant (2015)), or even immersive technology, as in the 2016 VR installation Carne y Arena, which plunges participants into “the harsh life of an immigrant” by dramatizing a harrowing border crossing in three dimensions. When Carne y Arena opened at Cannes in 2017, Dennis Lim wrote in Artforum that it was “rife with irony and ripe for precisely the kind of satire that won the Palme d’Or. Indeed, the whole thing might have been devised by the well-intentioned, tone-deaf culturati of The Square.”
In Birdman, Iñárritu located the unexpected virtue of his own cinephilic snobbishness and found himself briefly on the right side of film history, inveighing against the encroaching superhero-industrial complex via a satire about an ex–big screen caped crusader scrabbling for respectability via a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver. Released strategically into a Marvelized zeitgeist and featuring Lubezki at his acrobatic best, the film didn’t so much escape or transcend Iñárritu’s pretensions as channel them via a series of laser-focused seriocomic performances. The film’s real-time, single-camera conceit, at once recognizably “theatrical,” insofar as it suggests the intensity and momentum of a stage play, and also surpassingly cinematic, works to underline the script’s themes of art versus commerce until it ends up overwhelming them; by turns funny and obnoxious, the film suggests a doodle blown up into an installation. There was more room for stylistic pomposity in the widescreen, snow-capped vistas of The Revenant, which saw Iñárritu drag his alpha-male actors deep into the Rockies in search of the sort of bruising, naturalistic authenticity synonymous with the New Hollywood, particularly the visionary late-’70s excursions of William Friedkin and Michael Cimino, whose egos, and talent, supplied their successor with a helpful yardstick.
The technical and conceptual virtuosity Iñárritu allegorizes in his cinema is real: he’s talented and ambitious and even daring. Paradoxically, this fact makes his movies even worse than if he were a journeyman, or a fraud, or a hack. Not that a hack would have ever been entrusted with the resources necessary to produce a movie like The Revenant, a mega-production that employed craftsmen and technicians of the highest caliber to support its big-name leads, and which exudes something more than even baseline competence. It is an extremely well-made movie, even spectacular in fits and starts. It’s also hateful, or at least I hated how it took a base, elemental story of greed and revenge—a wounded trapper hunting down the comrades who’ve left him to die in the wilderness—and jerry-rigged it so that the protagonist is also an anti-racist, anti-colonialist paragon who takes time out from his quest to pal around with friendly Native Americans (and acts disgusted when they’re killed off), and even rescues a woman from her rapist. Transfiguring ugliness into uplift is tricky business, and in The Revenant, more than in anything that had come before, Iñárritu’s reach exceeded his grasp. But not by much. To viewers who don’t recognize its bald-faced lifts from Malick and Tarkovsky—and even to some who do, and applaud the homages—The Revenant has the savage, oneiric power of a classic. “To make a good film is war; to make a very good movie is a miracle,” Iñárritu told the Los Angeles Times in 2015. It’s hard not to think of the voice of Daniel Kaluuya, in Nope: “what’s a bad miracle?”
When Bardo premiered at Venice in September, it ran two hours and fifty-four minutes—a duration that indicated that Netflix was content to grant Iñárritu the same artistic latitude it gave the other brand-name directors they’ve patronized over the years. When it arrived on TVs, computers, and phones last week, however, Bardo was twenty-two minutes shorter. Alongside multiple press-circuit quotes about his disinterest in the mixed reviews generated by his epic, these elisions could be interpreted as an admission of failure—or a failure of nerve. For his part, Iñárritu claimed that the cuts were subtle—less a matter of excising scenes that didn’t work than tightening up the film’s “internal rhythm.” “There is nothing more powerful than seeing the film with audiences,” he told IndieWire. “That’s what helped me.”
Not having seen the longer version of Bardo, I can’t say whether his instincts are correct, but at two and a half hours, one thing the movie is not is slow; its opening image of a mysterious shadow bounding weightlessly across a desert plain anticipates the serene velocity of the proceedings. This is not a small point, because torpor is typically a corollary to self-indulgence, and Iñárritu, who edited the film himself, avoids this particular pitfall. Even if Bardo’s screenplay (co-written by hatless Birdman screenwriter Nicolás Giacobone) declines to give Iñárritu’s vicar a background in advertising, the director’s hardwired instincts as an adman are still intact. Working in tandem with his chosen vignette-style structure, they endow Bardo with the mix of abstraction and blatancy one encounters in the striking, high-end television commercials for cars, watches, and other luxury goods one definitely can’t afford. In 2020, Iñárritu was showcased alongside Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Kathryn Bigelow in a Rolex ad campaign about the watchmakers’ connection to cinema; imperious beneath tousled black hair, shafts of light illuminating his keen, Oscar-winning eye and his expensive timepiece, the director duly pantomimed a vision of self-possessed genius: a warm-up, perhaps, for the complex act of salesmanship embedded in Bardo, in which he truly has nothing to sell but himself.
The high-end commercial is a format in which Iñárritu has triumphed before, albeit in a more literal-minded way. In 2001, he made “Powder Keg,” a notable contribution to BMW’s then-innovative branded-content series The Hire, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. If the contemporaneous September 11 short film represents Iñárritu’s most effective filmmaking—a quality indivisible from its queasy opportunism—then “Powder Keg,” is his most outrageously entertaining. Written by Arriaga, the film condenses into ten bullet-riddled minutes a feature-length narrative about an imperiled war photographer (Stellan Skarsgård) being chauffeured through a demilitarized zone in a BMW SUV. (The driver is Clive Owen, the debonair protagonist of the series.) As an attempt to mash up action-movie tropes with frowny social commentary, “Powder Keg” is shameless and only arguably self-aware; it’s either a cynical, mercenary work-for-hire (which would make Iñárritu “the hire”), or an ardent attempt to use a corporate commission to draw attention to geopolitical instability. What makes it exciting within Iñárritu’s filmography—and, until Bardo, I would say singular—is that it generates the sort of friction between form and content (and intention and outcome) that requires serious contemplation. It’s interesting to consider what, exactly, Iñárritu thought he was selling via The Hire—himself, his worldview, BMWs—and this is ultimately what’s kind of beguiling about Bardo, too. In the absence of the narrative complications once supplied by Arriaga—or built into a readymade, historical picaresque like The Revenant—Bardo offers something like the director’s pure, distilled essence. It’s Iñárritu’s attempt to sell us (or himself) on the size and scope of his artistry—on the viability of a world made singly and ambivalently in his image.
Unsurprisingly, many of the film’s quasi-surrealist gambits land like a thud, including an extended, slowed-down discotheque reverie set to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which represents something like the nirvana of literal-minded music cues. (Von Trier used Bowie more imaginatively in The House That Jack Built, as did Charlotte Wells in this year’s Aftersun, another notable autofiction.) Bardo reaches its nadir during Silverio’s philosophical dialogue with a demonic avatar of Hernán Cortés, who rationalizes his legacy of indigenous genocide atop a mountainous pile of corpses. It’s a repulsively on-the-nose bit of staging that somehow becomes even more obnoxious when the dead are revealed to be extras in an extravagant commercial shoot—a morbid gag right out of Roy Andersson, except that where Andersson (a fellow adman) practices a gently self-effacing form of existentialism, Iñárritu makes a fetish of his own complicity, bringing to mind a colleague’s accusation that Silverio tries to use Mexican history to tell the story of his own life. (Elsewhere, we’re treated to Silverio standing in hapless, tragic silhouette at the edge of a mass border crossing whose naturalistic ensemble choreography is finally just a backdrop for his guilt.)
Rejecting the tumescent showmanship of these sequences feels good, but honesty compels me to report that, to an extent—and, naturally, not without remorse—I bought into some of Bardo’s other elements, its evocations of existential angst and impostor syndrome. I was even moved by parts of it, which I’d like to think says more about my increasing susceptibility to certain topics than Iñárritu’s powers of manipulation. I even teared up—despite myself—during the scene where Silverio and his family gather on the beach to spread the ashes of Mateo, the infant son whose stillbirth hangs over their enervated relations; shifting briefly into unreality, we see his wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) place a tiny, pearl-sized baby on the sand, which then crawls away from her (and the camera) into the waves, merging wordlessly and euphorically with the surf.
There is real-life context for this sequence, but, in personal and impersonal filmmaking alike, what matters is execution. Knowing that Iñárritu and his wife suffered a miscarriage early in their marriage doesn’t redeem the sub–Gaspar Noe gag at the beginning of Bardo where the newborn Mateo asks to be put back into the womb because “the world is too fucked up,” any more than it justifies Iñárritu’s cathartic dramaturgical intervention into the real-life narrative of The Revenant, forcing Leonardo DiCaprio’s character to watch helplessly while his son is murdered in front of him. In The Revenant, the allusion comes off as a craven way to give the hero high ground in a revenge narrative; here, the vision of the baby on the sand scrapes something ineffable. The haughty grandiloquence of the film’s art-imitates-life pretense falls away, and what’s left is as naked and vulnerable as it gets.
But Iñárritu never stops working, which means that by the end, most accumulated critical and emotional goodwill has dissipated. Bardo’s closing passages, which permit Silverio to float above his own potentially terminal condition, like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral, come off as self-serving, though maybe that’s better than a number of alternatives. Still, I found myself grateful for a film that permits such sustained contemplation. Late last week I read an interview with Iñárritu in which he said he planned to take a break from directing. “Bardo was a huge full meal, so I’m not thinking about dinner. I’m very satisfied with this experience.” Against all odds, I found myself comforted by Iñárritu’s satisfaction with his own work. Still, I look forward to the reemergence of his hunger.