Now more than ever, filmmakers are making films about filmmaking: Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes and Paolo Sorrentino have all been at it lately. No self-made quasi-biopic is likely to be quite as strange — or as self-indulgent — as Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest, a film as vast in ambition as it is nakedly pretentious in execution. In Buddhism, “bardo” describes the liminal state between death and rebirth; on screen, Bardo is the cinematic state of having your cake and eating it.
It’s a hard film of which to get the measure. The plot, such as it is, concerns Silverio Gama (played by Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose salt-and-pepper beard and hair invites a conspicuous comparison to Iñárritu himself), a renowned Mexican filmmaker who makes an unexpected trip to his hometown from his Los Angeles base in order to receive a lifetime achievement award. The timing of the award seems to chime with an existential reckoning in which Silverio tries to get to grips with his marriage, children, nationality, and grief over an apparent stillborn baby.
There is a straightforward midlife-crisis story here, but — leaning into the same playful continuity and eccentric humour of his Oscar-winning film Birdman — Iñárritu keeps reality at arm’s length; the seams between scenes are forever phantasmagorically fuzzy, magical-realist flights of fancy at every turn. That throw-the-rulebook-out approach can be as thrilling as it is frustrating. There is some bravura filmmaking on show here, epic in scope, but there’s an emptiness to some of it too, so bonkers as to be stripped of all meaning.
Bardo is the very definition of a “mixed bag”.
Bardo is, therefore, the very definition of a “mixed bag”. Sometimes it is bizarrely beautiful, such as the serenely dreamlike opening sequence, which offers a bird’s-eye-view of an unseen figure making superhuman jumps across a Mexican landscape. Sometimes it is grotesquely excessive and didactic, as when Silverio climbs a mountain of corpses, bluntly symbolic of Mexico’s bloody history. Sometimes it is just near-insufferable, such as the excruciating moment in which Silverio begins to go down on his wife, only for a CG baby — an unwelcome recurring character — to rudely emerge from her vagina.
Bardo at least looks spectacular, with cinematographer Darius Khondji finding strange beauty in everything from mass migration to a maternity ward. And amid the unrestrained silliness, there is an earnest attempt to grapple with ideas of identity and self, especially as an immigrant alienated in two cultures.
“Success has been my biggest failure,” Silverio says at one point (during a scene, incidentally, in which his face has been transplanted onto the body of a small boy — don’t ask). Like many lines in this script, it seems to be Iñárritu talking about himself, at once introspective and self-important, a film engaged in a dialogue with its own director. Whether it’s a conversation you’re willing to listen to will depend on your fortitude.