Here are three things that aren’t explained in the movie that might help you get more out of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “oneiric,” Fellini-esqe, quasi-autobiographical magnum opus “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.”
“Oneiric,” a label applied by the filmmaker and/or the studio to the film, means “dream poem.”
“Bardo” is a Buddhist term for a “transitional” state between death and life, “purgatory” without the Catholic guilt. So our hero is either dreaming, or near death.
And the giant salamanders that show show up in a handful of scenes of this film about a Mexican journalist who gained fame after he relocated to the United States and turned to “docufiction” documentaries, are axolotls, named by the Aztecs — unique to Mexico City and thus a symbol of the city and the Mexican Republic.
In the film, they can be interpreted as the fragile pull of the hero’s heritage when deep down, he knows moving north expanded his possibilities and gave his children the chance to excel in ways that hierarchical, hidebound and constrained Mexico would not.
It’s a movie — pardon, film, as in “A film is a movie we don’t quite understand.” — of dreams and narrative shifts in time and the order of events, a tapestry of modern and ancient Mexico. Its money-scene is a debate between Silvario Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, an Iñárritu look-alike) and infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés (Ivan Massagué) at the top of a mountain of Native corpses in a Mexico City littered with the “disappeared” dead of the country’s recent history.
Not to worry, the “dead,” whom our protagonist, returned to the city from the U.S. to be feted before flying “home” to LA to receive a prestigious journalism honor, are but “extras” on a film shoot — his own.
Silvario as a character has seen them drop dead symbolically everywhere he turns his eyes to show the carnage of the drug wars, murderous corruption and the sea of humanity that has been fleeing north to the Rio Grande for 100 years, many of them dying along the way.
But before I go any further into this challenging satiric parable in an “8 1/2/All That Jazz” vein, what do we say about movies that don’t give us everything we need to interpret them between the opening and closing credits? That force us to look up obscure esoterica? We call such films cheats, the product of a pretentious, indulgent filmmaker who might actually be making this for a Mexican audience, not that you’d get a lot of traction with obscure Buddhist titling and 40 peso words for “dream narrative” in Ciudad Mexico either.
At some point, watching “Bardo,” I had to close up my notebook, give up on writing down the sometimes profound “handful of truths” in the hero’s conversations with his wife (Griselda Siciliani), kids (Ximena Lamadrid, Iker Sancho), long-dead father (Luis Couturier), mother (Luz Jiménez) and Cortez.
At some point, there’s nothing for it but to lean forward, rest your head on your heads and try to figure out what this Oscar-winning (“Birdman,” “The Revenant”) pendejo is trying to say in two and a half hours of out time thanks to a big blank indulgent check from Netflix.
Silvario is determined to get an interview with a race-baiting/Mexican-hating US president. The news is filled with Amazon.com’s plans to buy “the Mexican state of Baja, California.”
Our documentarian is defensive about his homeland to anyone who bad-mouths the “Third World” basket-case state overrun with migrants fleeing north from Central and South America, narco-lords, corrupt cops and the corrupt politicians who enable them. But Silvario sees the classism that is so shocking to his kids, the affluence he has lived in and raised them in contrasted with the poverty that sends hundreds of thousands north when the crops fails and the struggle overwhelms them. He feels the resentment for leaving.
He drifts into encounters with ghosts, and truthfully, we aren’t sure in any given scene just what the reality of the moment is, if he’s really making love to his wife or sitting — mute — while an old comrade, now an embittered click-bait ambush chat show host (Francisco Rubio) who attacks him, smiling, on a live TV.
“Exposure at any price,” Silvario complains when the friend Luis complains about his silent evasions.
That’s what attention culture demands. Here he is, like every over-achiever who ever had to mix with the entitled, “seeking approval from people who despite me.”
Reality in “Bardo” is subjective, and capricious. Which is why we mutter Mexican profanities at the great Iñárritu. The pendejo isn’t playing fair.
There are magical moments, and brilliant sequences tossed into this ensalada of a movie — long tracking shots through a big rental hall concert/dance party, through his spacious Mexico City house, over the desert as we see Silvario’s acclaimed and controversial migrant profile film recreated.
He lectures the American ambassador (Jay O. Sanders) about a mythic moment in the disastrous (for Mexico) Mexican-American war, and it is recreated right in front of them, with Mexican actors in cheap blond wigs portraying the American troops.
Silvario sees stigmata on his feet, more than once and watches them nailed to the floor at one point, and muses on the state of things and his state of mind in voice over-narration, which more than one character complains about. “Move your LIPS” when you talk (in Spanish, with English subtitles).
Some of the profundities I jotted down before giving up and simply trying to decode what I was seeing — “A documentarian should not believe, or not believe. He only must know where to point the camera.” Old age isn’t summoned or expected, but when it arrives “It becomes a full time job.”
There’s a lot of that in the third act, which goes on forever and drags and drags, despite having the odd pithy observation about life and living it, guilt over “home” and the like.
I didn’t hate “Bardo,” something I can’t say about Iñárritu’s pal Alfonso Cuaron’s even more indulgent and hilariously over-rated “Roma.” But he’s made a film that challenges and infuriates and in equal measure.
And if the worst thing that comes from it is a few critic-fans calling him a “pendejo” for it, he’ll have gotten off lightly.
Rating: R for language throughout, strong sexual content and graphic nudity.
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid, Iker Sancho, Francisco Rubio and Jay O. Sanders.
Credits: Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, scripted by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Nicolás Giacobone. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:39