If you pondered how Roma might look from a narcissist’s perspective, your answer is director / co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. The winner of two Best Director Oscars — for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant — Iñárritu can still deliver occasionally trenchant technical marvels of composition and movement. But there is no tangible emotion here, as everything runs tantamount to the style employed to tell this story about … well, I guess how sad Iñárritu feels about the artistic freedom to spend Netflix’s money on a meandering, 152-minute mishmash. (The film expands its limited theatrical release Friday ahead of a December 16 Netflix premiere.)
Such as it is, the story of Bardo finds independent journalist and “docufiction” filmmaker Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) on the verge of becoming the first Mexican to win an illustrious American award for journalism ethics. This achievement should be the crown jewel of Silverio’s career, even putting him close to a historic interview with the President of the United States on the eve of Amazon’s purchase of Baja California. (Yes, that Amazon.)
But ahead of the big shindig, Silverio is beset by angst on all fronts — about Luis (Francisco Rubio), the commercially successful but creatively frustrated colleague he left behind, about whether modern Mexico expresses itself with vibrancy or vitriol, about whether he can ever truly feel “at home” in his adopted United States, about a long-ago family loss and its effect on his wife, Lucía (Griselda Siciliani), and kids Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) and Lorenzo (Iker Sanchez Solano).
In between the occasional fun of being fêted — never better than in a sequence that finds Silverio dancing to a vocal-only mix of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” — Silverio generally dodders from one insular, increasingly insane, tableau to the next. As Silverio puts it: “I go around seeking approval from people who despise me.”
Beside an American bigwig (Jay O. Sanders), Silverio witnesses an animated reenactment of the battle for Chapultepec’s Castle. He encounters his late father in a nightclub bathroom and strikes up a conversation, his body shrunken to a child’s size with a disproportionate adult head. Silverio navigates a minefield of slumped bodies in a bustling center of commerce where there are pointed references to Iñárritu’s past films. In a moment that aims for Alejandro Jodorowsky-like despair but deflates into old-hat cynical Hollywood commentary, Silverio debates Hernán Cortés atop a mountain of motionless bodies in a bombed-out city that represents the Spanish conquistador’s thirst for slaughter. (If you’re wondering what Silverio means by “the amphitheater of the genital sun in a dungheap,” well, that’s Iñárritu letting you know he’s read poet Octavio Paz.)
All this Iñárrituception is just an ouroboros of observations about the obliteration of time, culture, creativity, integrity, family and values. In other words, it’s the conventional catalog of calamities thumbed through by filmmakers when they choose to go so meta with their memoirs. (With a smidge of White Lotus-ish opulence thrown in for sunshine, Bardo is more Bellini than Fellini.)
Somehow, Giménez Cacho discovers several dimensions to Silverio’s bemusement amid this bombast. But his casting seems primarily pinned to how similar to Iñárritu he looks in a suit. (Giménez Cacho also occasionally resembles Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti on The Sopranos — also fitting, as Bardo resembles a very long version of those episodes where a comatose Tony Soprano envisioned himself as businessman Kevin Finnerty.)
Thanks to cinematographer Darius Khondji and Iñárritu’s insistence on spectacle, Bardo is not without intermittently intoxicating visuals; after all, as Silverio says, “If you don’t know how to play around, you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.” The way a sunny morning slowly morphs into a torrential downpour as a conversation about cultural authenticity goes south is also effective — letting us see how a nation’s shadows grow long and can be most easily glimpsed as the sun sets on legacy just so. And while the ultimate message about the dangers of carelessness with the comforts and connections we cherish most could be compelling, Bardo simply splays Silverio’s / Iñárritu’s subconscious suppositions onscreen in a way that feels like cosplay mourning or woe-unto-me whining, utterly disconnected from any deep feeling. As far as a film that connects beyond compositional skill, the claim that there are even a handful of truths in Bardo is stretching it.