Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu
Written by Alejandro G. Inarritu & Nicolas Giacobone
Alejandro G. Inarritu, a unique master of cinema, is a polarizing figure among the cinephile community. He has some of the best films of the past decade, including The Revenant, which won Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar, and Birdman, which won Inarritu his first of two Best Director Oscars and also won Best Picture. Not to mention Biutiful and Babel and 21 Grams and Amores Perros. His prowess goes back more than 20 years in the industry and his work has continuously been recognized by the Academy. However, he is still a polarizing figure, with some criticizing his work as pretentious, or self-indulgent, or any other manner of criticism. I like that about Inarritu. He’s not a pop director, he takes chances, he doesn’t aim to please everyone. He’s his own director, expressing his own vision. That certainly makes him unique. It also makes for a film like the one we have here, BARDO, a Netflix release which will be sure to ruffle some feathers of those who admonish his past works. Does it work? For me, it does not. But damn if I don’t appreciate that at least Inarritu is going for something here. It doesn’t always work, but going for it should be encouraged in an industry which puts out way too many safe, uninteresting works these days.
The film follows the life of Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a Mexican journalist and renowned documentary filmmaker who now lives mainly in Los Angeles. Upon being named the recipient for a prestigious international award, Silverio returns home to Mexico, where he is met with all kinds of questions of self, existence, national identity and more with which he must grapple. He travels these trying times, from being a guest on the talk show hosted by his friend to a lush and energetic party thrown in his honor, all with his wife and children by his side as he must come to terms with his place not only on the international filmmaking stage, but also as a notable Mexican who no longer spends his time in his native land.
For those unfamiliar, like I was before seeing this film, “Bardo” is a Buddhist term used to describe an intermediate or transitional state between death and rebirth. Seeing the film with this in mind makes for a much more sensible watch, otherwise you risk getting lost somewhat in the esoteric narrative which sees our main character making his way through a seemingly supernatural world at times. Given this added context, knowing that Silverio has perhaps passed and is grappling with the people in his life, the work he accomplished, and the things he experienced in his life prior to passing on to the next world, makes for a far more meaningful experience as a viewer. The themes are clear regardless, Silverio is contemplating his place in the world, his worth, often working through problems associated with Imposter Syndrome. As someone who often wonders what his place is in this world, these contemplations really worked for me in a big way, carrying the emotional weight of the film.
And as a semi-autobiographical tale, although Inarritu is obviously not dead, Bardo makes a ton of sense as an exploration of his cinematic place in the world. As mentioned up top, he is a celebrated filmmaker, and for good reason in the eyes of this writer, but he is not without his detractors. What is ironic is the fact that exploring this Imposter Syndrome, and making a semi-autobiographical film like Bardo plays directly into the criticism he has received in the past. But that bold approach, along with the beautiful cinematography, production design and sound, makes his self-indulgence all the more palatable.
But the question remains, despite the ambitious themes and story, despite the flashy production, despite the clear self-indulgence of the project, does it work? First, the self-indulgence has never been a problem for me. In many ways, every art project is an exercise in self-indulgence. If we’re going to celebrate Steven Spielberg this year for his own semi-autobiographical, self-indulgent project The Fabelmans, why does it disqualify Alejandro G. Inarritu from the same praise? In short, it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, from my perspective, while there are interesting moments which prompt internal thought and exploration of self, the film is too abstract, too scatterbrained, and maybe too ambitious for its own good to ultimately work in the end. So while I can sit from afar and appreciate the heck out of the craft of this film, laud Inarritu for his ambition and bold vision, I cannot also get on board with Bardo being an effective and competent exploration of its themes, and that’s a shame. But I will tell you one thing, I am still firmly in the Inarritu fan camp, am looking forward to whatever project he takes on next, and can applaud him for at least going for something with this project and not playing it safe.