Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Mexico). Year of Release: 2022
A vast, sprawling desert. We see from behind the lengthy shadow of a running man. The shadow jumps high – so much that we lose track of it, before it lands back into view and starts running again. This scene is repeated several times.
Cut to: a load of weird shit. A baby is born and delivered, but then demands to be returned to its mother’s womb because “this world is too fucked up”. A man on a tube train is carrying a plastic bag full of water and axolotls until the bag bursts and he is suddenly crawling through the train knee deep in water. A radio broadcast in the background announces that Amazon has just bought the Mexican province of Baja California. Fasten your seatbelts, this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Most of the rest of the film is focussed on Silverio, a Mexican journalist, who has been working for the last 15 years in LA. As the US film industry prepares to honour his new documentary, he returns to Mexico for another ceremony celebrating him. Apparently, Daniel Giménez Cacho, who plays Silverio with greying hair and a sense of despondency, looks exactly like director Iñárritu, but when he puts on his oversized glasses, he also looks very like beardy era Jarvis Cocker.
In case this all sounds a little plot driven, consider the following scenes which are about to appear in the film:
- Silverio is queuing for some tongue from the roadside fast food place when he sees a woman collapse to the floor. Everyone walks past, ignoring her. He goes over and asks if she needs any help. From her prone state, she says “No, leave me as I am”. It’s all like Radiohead’s video for Just, especially when everyone in the vicinity also falls to the ground.
- Siverio hears a voice and climbs to the top of a hill of bodies to confront Conquistador Hernán Cortés, and discuss with him the morality of colonising Latin America. After some discussion, the bodies all wake up and rise, as if they were extras on a film set. A passing man on a phone starts talking about how absurdly pretentious this scene has been.
- Silverio is in a massive concert hall in Mexico where a band is playing live Cumbia music. There is a prolonged series of dancing before the music suddenly changes. We hear Let’s Dance, but without any of the instruments – just David Bowie’s voice and the backing vocals. It’s ethereal and haunting and I want to know where I can get hold of a copy.
- As Silverio is called on stage to receive an honour, he slips into the toilets. They seem empty, but in the mirror he spots somebody. It is his father, who died 8 years ago. Somehow he towers over his son as if he were a teenager once more. Silverio confronts his father about all the things he didn’t do and say when he was alive.
- Silverio leaves his father in the toilet and moves into the next room, which appears to be in an old folks home. His white haired mother, who really is still alive, is sat on her own. She explains how sad she is, being stuck with all these old people. When S tells her that at least she’s survived, she stares at him with a look that says that might not be the best option.
- Silverio’s son Lorenzo tells him about his 3 axolotls. When Silverio took the family to California, Lorenzo was upset at losing all his school friends. He filled a plastic bag with water, put his axolotls in, and stuffed it in his suitcase. The reptiles were DOA in the US so Lorenzo put them under his bed. When they started to smell, he put them in the freezer. Cue an unfortunate family meal when mum served fish.
Much of the film consists of abstract surreal musings like these, which don’t really need to make sense. Where Bardo comes closest to profundity is in its discussion of the life of a “first-class immigrant” – someone who is protected to a large extent by money and a respectable job, but is still worried by the rise of nationalism in both his home and his adopted country; someone who is not completely isolated from everyday racism.
We see this racism most clearly in a scene in LAX airport. The Latino immigrationguard checking Silverio’s passport tells him that because he possesses an O-1 passport, he should not be able to call the USA “home”. Silverio and his family remonstrate in Spanish, but the guard says that he only understands English. Silverio continues protesting and demands an apology. This is a combination of First World problems and everyday racism writ large.
More than most films, the success of Bardo depends a lot on how prepared you are to go with the flow. Before I went into the cinema, I was very wary of a film that is nearly 3 hours long, (mainly) in Spanish, and with German subtitles (in the version I saw). These are all sorts of reasons to hate it. As it happens, I thought it was hilarious, well crafted, and – as I’m sure its critics (of whom there are many) must concede – beautifully shot.
But what’s it all about? To be honest, for long periods, I don’t really know, and I’m not sure that it really matters. One one level, it’s about racism, and imperialism, about the mixed identity of someone with dual nationality, and the poisoned chalice of fame. It’s also about film maker problems which needn’t concern the rest of us. But to worry about this too much Is to miss that it’s mainly about creativity and a director pushing the barriers of what you can do with film.
Many critics hated it, or were at least lukewarm. On another day, I may also have hated it. But today, I just revelled in a great and inventive film.