.Borderline Loco

The hero of ‘Bardo’ discovers one can’t go home again

Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Bardo may be a bit too long (159 stretched-out minutes) and cluttered, but there’s no denying he’s sincerely trying to tell viewers something about himself and the world in which he lives. The latest from Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant, Babel) may be his most personal effort yet, the tale of a man intent on making peace with his identity, his memories and everyone in his life, and the seeming impossibility of doing so. 

When the audience first meets documentary filmmaker Silverio Gama (played by Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho), he’s already at full throttle, preparing to receive lifetime career awards in Mexico City—where he was born and raised—and later in Los Angeles, his home for the last 20 years. 

Silverio has that certain senior-correspondent demeanor—alternately laconic and loquacious, depending on whom his company is—with fashionably long graying hair and the air of a man to whom people confide their secrets. The face of received wisdom. The ears of an oracle. 

His position in the fast-paced showbiz/literary scheme of things causes Silverio unending regret. He’s a man who knows too much, and yet firmly believes he realizes far too little.

As Silverio, his wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliani) and his two grown children (Ximena Lamadrid and Íker Sánchez Solano) whirl and natter through typical scenes of upscale family life, it’s clear that poor old dad is a bit preocupado. He has visions. 

Ordinary conversations suddenly drift into dramatic reenactments of battles from the 1846 Mexican-American War, or soulful encounters with his long-deceased father and mother. These are classic “old-man-movie” tropes, but presented gently, gracefully, out of nowhere, amid Silverio’s hurly-burly schedule.

Iñárritu has shown us apparitions before, but this latest magnum opus is a different case. All of Silverio’s visions are interiorized. Grizzly bears do not come charging out of the woods, and we don’t witness Michael Keaton levitating above Manhattan’s theater district. 

Instead, Silverio tangles on the air with a familiar nemesis, the host of a daytime TV talk show (Francisco Rubio), who hurls insults about the filmmaker’s skin color (más morenito), designed to insinuate that Silverio is trying to ignore his roots. Meanwhile the U.S. ambassador, a pompous fool (Jay O. Sanders), huffs condescendingly while relaying the news that Amazon is planning to buy Baja California.

The more superficial the patter, the more seriously Silverio takes it. All this self-conscious drive-by introspection reminds us of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, or any of Terrence Malick’s films after The Tree of Life. There’s also a lingering sweet sadness, shades of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries—Silverio is less unhappy about the things that might have been than what took place all around him after he followed the magic dollar sign across the U.S. border. 

At the top of his  sadness list is the demise of his young son, Mateo, years earlier. To Silverio, Mateo now exists in the twilight between life and death signified by the Tibetan Buddhist term bardo. It seems a long way to go to find a film title, but whatever gets one through the night is all right. That forgiveness extends to the film’s official subtitle: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.

The large-scale set pieces are grandly Freudian and full of impending doom—refugee immigrants massing in the desert, Silverio’s madcap freakout on a Mexico City dance floor, the Night Town scene with a toppled Aztec stone deity, the pyramid of corpses. Likewise the presence of three little axolotls, the family pets. Those odd little reptiles aren’t tough enough to survive a routine trip on the Los Angeles Metro. 

Anchored by actor Giménez’s quixotic performance, Bardo—co-written by Nicolás Giacobone—manages to finesse Silverio’s stranger-in-a-strange-land crisis of confidence into something that sticks in the mind after all the elaborate staging, huge props and magic realism disappear into the desert—taking with them the lonely soul of a man without a country.

Streaming on Netflix 

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