biennale cinema 2022

The Iñárritu Wars Begin Again

Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s much-hyped and achingly sincere Netflix movie Bardo arrived at Venice, only to be swiftly panned. Photo: Netflix

It can be quite a spectacle when critics smell blood in the water, particularly if the one doing the bleeding is one of those artists they (we) love to hate. And so it seems to be the case with Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, the much-garlanded director of Birdman and The Revenant, who came to Venice with the Netflix-financed, much-hyped, and achingly sincere Bardo (or a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths), only to receive something of a drubbing.

Iñárritu makes for a particularly rich target for critics because he makes movies with grand intentions, where the greatness sometimes seems to announce itself long before the film starts. To some, that sense of greatness is unearned. And I get it. The Iñárritu Wars play out regularly in my own head: I loved Amores Perros and Birdman, but I detested 21 Grams and Babel. I liked Biutiful, but The Revenant felt to me like a movie filmed by a genius and edited by someone who was told a few too many times that he was a genius. (I still maintain that there’s a good film in there somewhere.)

Bardo is a surreal, semi-autobiographical fantasy-drama about Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican journalist and documentarian who left home years ago and has carved out a career for himself in California. He’s about to receive a prestigious prize from a U.S. journalism association, but he is filled with guilt. Guilt over accusations that he “kisses the gringos’ asses.” Guilt over criticisms that his work is self-centered, indulgent. Guilt over his bourgeois lifestyle, his out-of-touchness with the common people. Guilt over the fact that he’s never there for his family. Silverio’s crises also play out against news reports that the U.S. government is laying the groundwork for Amazon to buy the Mexican state of Baja California. Has he somehow been complicit in setting the stage for such a capitalist calamity?

A lot of critics aren’t buying all this introspection. “[T]he thing that most readily identifies Bardo as an Iñárritu movie is the virtuosic way it adopts greatness as a genre instead of earning it as a reward. Here is another magnum opus that’s eager to suffocate you with the same air of significance that Iñárritu has sewn into his previous work,” writes David Ehrlich at Indiewire. “Iñárritu has cooked up a personal epic of the most exhaustingly swaggery type, man-spread across three hours of screen time during which flashes of genuine, startling brilliance occasionally manage to push their way through the strenuously zany macho-visionary fug,” writes Robbie Collin at the Telegraph. “Bardo is a film high on its own supply yet low on any sense of actual intrigue or intuition. For the filmmaker, he’s breathing in his own narcissism. The audience? They’re breathing in his exhaust fumes,” writes Marshall Shaffer at Slashfilm. Those are the reviews; the on-the-ground buzz has in some cases been even more brutal.

Not everybody hated the 174-minute film, though. Carlos Aguilar at The Wrap declared Bardo a masterpiece, and was clearly moved by its labyrinthine self-interrogation and the way it explored Iñárritu’s thorny relationship with Mexico. “In Silverio’s complicated bond with his motherland, one can witness Iñárritu’s desire to acknowledge his own distance to it, geographically and emotionally,” Aguilar writes. “From afar, as many immigrants can attest to, our yearning to belong often manifests in patriotic sentiments. Nobody is prouder of being Mexican than a Mexican outside of Mexico, by choice or need.” It will indeed be interesting to see how Bardo is received as it is seen by more people, and in particular how it will be received in Mexico and among Mexican-Americans.

What’s interesting about Bardo is that, at least on the film’s surface, Iñárritu seems to have already taken many of the aforementioned criticisms to heart. The movie is filled with self-loathing, but it’s an arty kind of self-loathing, with extended scenes of Silverio’s shadow bouncing across the desert, Silverio drifting into surreal visions out of Mexican history and scenes from his own life. Honestly, on paper, it sounds like the kind of thing I would love. I have a soft spot for narratives of immigration and assimilation and the bizarre connection between alienation from, and adoration for, one’s homeland. But I must admit that I really did not care for Bardo. It has some of the same problems as The Revenant, in that Iñárritu can’t seem to let any idea go, and any interesting or exciting vision he presents us with has to be extended, and repeated, and shown from multiple angles, just in case we somehow missed its brilliance the first time. But it’s more than that. Without a central story, the film fails to breathe or move. Iñárritu has a flair for the cinematic, for bold and striking images, but he is not an experimental filmmaker. He doesn’t have that kind of deft touch, that willingness to throw ideas at the wall, see what sticks, and — most importantly — move on.

I was actually shocked at how cold Bardo left me. The film opens with a bizarre scene of childbirth, wherein the baby says the world is too fucked up and asks to be inserted back into his mother. It’s a bitter, funny little gag, but as the movie proceeds we realize that this story was how Silverio and his wife were able to come to terms with the death of a newborn. That’s a devastating idea. So why doesn’t it work? I think it might be because the film, even though it’s filled with people, has almost no characters. Everyone, including Silverio’s wife and his other two kids, seems to be there to reflect him. Silverio himself is a character, of course, but within the mad maze of his self-regard (of which his self-loathing is merely just an extension), nothing feels real or concrete. Not even his lost child.

Many have noted that Bardo consciously evokes Federico Fellini’s similarly surreal and semi-autobiographical masterpiece 8 ½. It also recalls Ingmar Bergman’s classic journey into memory, Wild Strawberries. One could go down the great names of film history and find any number of Capital-A Auteurs who made extended, allegedly indulgent tone poems about their lives: Theo Angelopoulos, Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfonso Cuarón, and so on. But the two pictures I kept thinking of were Dennis Hopper’s much-maligned, coke-fueled, career-ending acid-western The Last Movie (a film I personally love), and Iñárritu’s own Birdman, which is also an episodic and absurdist picture driven by self-doubt, but one that is a lot more compelling, perhaps partly because it’s more removed from the director’s own reality. (Birdman also has, like, characters, and a story.)

The scene in Bardo that most specifically reminds one of Birdman is one where a journalist pal of his lays into Silverio, telling him he couldn’t check his ego, that he turned everything into an objective correlative of his own life. (“You used historical figures to talk about yourself!”) A lot of critics saw the similar scene in Birdman as a declaration of war by Iñárritu, but it’s probably my favorite sequence from that movie, because it so accurately dissects the character of Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson and his whole theatrical project; it crystallizes his self-doubt. In Birdman, these criticisms are arguably refuted by the protagonist’s ultimate achievement, so that the scene becomes about the need to work through one’s doubts to achieve something meaningful. But Bardo’s critic doesn’t get such a touching comeuppance. One suspects that Iñárritu, for all the self-flagellation he’s doing in this movie, still kind of thinks the people who dare to criticize him are assholes. For some of those critics, the feeling appears to be mutual.

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The Iñárritu Wars Begin Again