Alejandro G. Iñarritu traipsed around the Canadian wilderness to direct “The Revenant,” which won three Oscars, and became immortalized as the proverbial Hardest Movie to Make. However, the director feels differently.
“‘The Revenant’ is nothing compared to this,” said Iñarritu as he settled into an interview at the Telluride Film Festival, where “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” made its North American premiere. “I am not joking. I think this is the most complicated film I have done.”
The arguments to back that up include the incredible range of special effects that Iñarritu injects into a wild, surrealist (and often quite funny) character study steeped in dreamlike twists that sneak in and out of the story of a respected documentarian returning home to Mexico City. “It’s very difficult to make a film that has no gravitational center,” he said.
Or there’s this: “Bardo” is an easy target for viewers allergic to films with the potential to be labeled as vanity projects. The movie’s undeniable autobiographical connotations, and a protagonist named Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) who resembles its filmmaker, invite such derision.
“Obviously, I have the right to talk about things that I know have affected me as a citizen of the world and as a Mexican,” said Iñarritu, who avoided reading the movie’s mixed reception at the Venice premiere ahead of his Telluride arrival. “Yes, what better things can I talk about than the ones I have gone through? But that doesn’t make the film about me, for god’s sake. This is about very universal things.”
© Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.
The truth is more subtle than that: The production of “Bardo” found Iñarritu returning to Mexico for the first time since his 2000 breakout “Amores Perros,” filtering his own experiences into a broader interrogation of Latin American identity. Proud of his heritage in America but uneasy with it when he returns home, Iñarritu’s onscreen alter ego taps into a phenomenon unique to the immigrant experience.
“I think the ones who feel displaced will understand it,” Iñarritu said. “Distance and time can make you feel that way. Your roots and your identity start to get dissolved. It’s a feeling that’s almost impossible to grasp if you haven’t been through it.”
That theme resonated for some audiences at Telluride, where “Bardo” distributor Netflix hosted a boisterous party over the weekend. After working the dance floor and capturing footage of his actors boogieing away, Iñarritu settled down outside with “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao. The pair smoked and shouted into each other’s ears for well over an hour as curious onlookers watched nearby. The music drowned out their conversation, but Iñarritu said that Zhao — who would later moderate a Q&A for the movie — surprised him with the intensity of her reaction.
“She was very moved by it,” he said. “She stopped working for a day, she told me, because she was so affected by that. It’s a feeling that we share. You don’t have to be Mexican. But if you’ve never left your country and you only speak one language, if your culture has provided you with everything you need all your life, you don’t understand what I’m talking about.”
Iñarritu has grappled with this conundrum since he first left Mexico and made “21 Grams” in the U.S. Lumped into the “Three Amigos” media hype that included his Mexican compatriots Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, Iñarritu found himself in an existential bardo of his own. “I am a very privileged Mexican, a first-class immigrant,” he said, “but it was very hard to adjust to working in the United States — the mentality, the technicians, the language. In a way, we worked our asses off to be where we are. It was not easy, the feeling of not belonging here.”
Iñarritu entered rarified company when he won back-to-back directing Oscars for “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” an experience that he said made it harder for him to sort out his next creative chapter. “It absolutely made me feel more vulnerable,” he said. “This relationship with success is always complicated. It poisons you and it puts you much more on the spot, so you become an easier target.” He felt a queasy disconnect between his Mexican heritage and growing Hollywood stature. “I may be too American for the Mexicans and too Mexican for the Americans,” he said. “There’s a moment that I just feel that.”
The appeal of “Bardo” stems from the way it confronts, rather than receding from, that challenge. The movie begins with a pair of outrageous dream sequences — a POV shot of its character in flight across the desert, and an imaginary scene in which his unborn child decides to return to the womb. It only gets wilder from there, from a poignant confrontation between Silverio and his late father that finds the younger man shrinking down to adolescent size to an imaginary moment in which all of Mexico City dies around the him and he winds up in conversation with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.
In between are touching showdowns between Silverio and his resentful family, Silverio and Mexican media, class warfare, and one helluva long take on the dance floor. “This film has more to do with Jorge Luis Borges than Fellini,” Iñarritu said. “Borges was always blending time and space in a labyrinthine way. That’s the source of inspiration for me.”
It’s also a meditation on Mexican history that some American audiences may not fully grasp. The movie includes zany digressions on colonialism, references to Aztec mythology about the god of fire, the tens of thousands of women who have gone missing across the country, and discourse on the Mexican-American war.
“All those things have shaped us as a nation,” Iñarritu said. He was especially keen on a scene in which two characters discuss how the U.S. acquired half of Mexico for a mere 50 million pesos. “These defeats gave us an inferiority complex,” he said. “Many American don’t even know what happened, but Mexicans will get it. There are a lot of things about our narratives that affected our consciousness.” In his first Telluride introduction, he compared the movie’s complex thematic blend to pozole, then took a moment to explain to the audience what that was.
After “The Revenant,” Iñarritu doubled down on his family life. He hiked a lot, learned how to make pottery, and spent time with his daughter in Japan. He stopped and started writing “Bardo” twice during the pandemic, he said, and initially self-financed the project before Netflix got involved. In those early stages, colleagues cautioned him not to assume he could pull off the outrageous concept he had in mind.
“They warned me, saying this is not the same landscape as five years ago,” he said. That extended to the subversive nature of the story. “It has become a very difficult landscape for every filmmaker to navigate that vulnerable space where you can be lynched by anyone anytime without any real basis for it,” he said.
Yet “Bardo” avoids such minefields by funneling Silverio’s neuroses into a visual spectacle loaded with ingenuity few filmmakers could pull off. The VFX, produced by the same company now working on Barry Jenkins’ “The Lion King” prequel for Disney, have never been rarely applied in such intimate terms. The closest comparison may be “Birdman,” but trades its Hollywood satire for a more honest and intimate exploration.
“Technically and cinematically, this film is something I feel really proud of,” Iñarritu said. “Navigating through this liquidity of time and space is very difficult to do with images.”
Photo by SeoJu Park
The movie’s risk-taking is an implicit challenge to more conservative storytelling standards. While promoting “Birdman,” Iñarritu told a journalist that he thought Marvel movies were a form of “cultural genocide,” which prompted Robert Downey Jr. to retort, “For a man whose native tongue is Spanish to be able to put together a phrase like ‘cultural genocide’ just speaks to how bright he is.” The director still smarts over that one.
“It was like ‘Oh, you guys from your banana country,’” he said. “If I were from Denmark or Sweden, I might be seen as philosophical, but when you’re Mexican and you say things, you’re pretentious.”
While “Birdman” included a scene in which its troubled movie star confronts a critic, Iñarritu claimed to have avoided the media response this time. His well-documented sensitivities engender a bubble of protection wherever he goes. (One journalist who voiced displeasure with “Bardo” was booted from the Telluride party.)
“I don’t read reviews because there’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I respect very much what people have to say, but I think the most important thing is at least they try to spend some time thinking about what is in the film. It’s fine that you can dislike it, but I think everyone feels the temptation of easy reductions.”
Still, he couldn’t avoid reports that the movie had been seen in narcissistic terms. “I will never make a film about myself,” he said. “Nothing would be more boring or banal than that.”
Despite its complicated reception, there are indications that “Bardo” will continue to win fans as its awards campaign heats up. Telluride audiences who expressed their appreciation after screenings ranged from Cate Blanchett to Barry Jenkins, and Netflix will give the movie a seven-week theatrical run, its longest ever. Iñarritu is likely to be boasting about his achievement more than defending it in the months ahead.
“This has left me exhausted, but at the same time quite satisfied,” he said. “For me, it’s the best film I have done. It will be very difficult to make a better film than this.”
“Bardo” opens theatrically on November 18 and will stream on Netflix on December 16.