Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Nov 04, 2022
By David Potvin

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In his seventh feature film and first in seven years, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu informs his audience of what to expect upfront. The first scene tells us we will be occupying a dream: a series of gravity-eschewing leaps result in our soaring, from a first-person perspective, above an empty desert. The second scene tells us we will be examining heavy topics with levity: a newborn, perhaps not in a condition to live long, is simply returned to his mother’s womb to be dealt with at a later date.

Said newborn is the son of Silverio, the protagonist of Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths and a clear stand-in for Iñárritu himself. Like Iñárritu, Silverio is a Mexican filmmaker (albeit, of documentaries) whose career has brought him and his family north of the border for the better part of the past couple decades. His strides in the United States leave him spread spiritually thin across two cultures. In a phantasmic visit with his deceased father, Silverio states: “Success has been my biggest failure.” Regardless of what a viewer knows about Iñárritu beforehand, it won’t take long to see through the surreal and notice that the film is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. Certain moments in the film ache with a knowledge that feels highly personal. This type of film can be seen as self-absorbed, but such is the nature of one’s dreams, after all.

Iñárritu attempts to examine not only his own past and identity — but Mexico’s as well. Tackling just one of these two massive undertakings at a time might have made for a more coherent film, but Iñárritu would likely say that he is unable to examine one without disentangling it from the other.

In fact, many potential criticisms of the film are voiced or answered for by the characters themselves. In this way, Iñárritu has made a film that is nearly critique-proof. In particular, Luis, a television talk show host and old acquaintance of Silverio serves up some scathingly choice words, although we come to find out some of these are the imaginings of Silverio — a dream within a dream, perhaps. Even anticipated grumblings over the film’s running time (clocking in at over two and half hours) are addressed indirectly, spoofed in an exchange between Silverio and a whiny sister.

One convention sorely under-utilized is the close-up. When we do eventually get a rare careful look at an actor’s face, we hardly recognize them. The lensing throughout Bardo is so wide the lens needs to practically touch an actor’s nose to achieve the framing of a close-up. This was also the case in Iñárritu’s two most recent films The Revenant (2015) and Birdman (2014). Those films were shot by Emmanuel Lubezki. Bardo is shot by Darius Khondji, a well-established and celebrated cinematographer in his own right, but Khondji follows faithfully in Lubezki’s footsteps. Another byproduct of the wide lenses used is that any faces that find their way to the left or right edge of the frame appear stretched. Images captured with very wide lenses have become more normalized in recent years; the latest smartphones give many the ability to create such images. When framed vertically, a phone’s wide lens can lengthen legs and perform other feats of flattery. Here, however, the composition suffers all too often. To the film’s credit, beautiful images are achieved, and many of the long takes in the film are dazzling examples of careful choreography, not just by the actors involved but the camera operators too.

Despite any visual distortions, the dreaming in Bardo cannot be described as a fever dream. Nothing seen is too nightmarish. Much is playful: Silverio can communicate his thoughts to others without moving his lips and his daughter Camila changes music tracks with the clap of her hands. The pacing is relaxed which, frankly, will be a welcome respite for viewers whose media consumption today is punctuated by thoughtless thumb flicks along social media feeds. (Luis says to Silverio at one point: “I don’t know how you can spend so much time on one thing.”)

Although this film does not aim to give the appearance of a “one-shot” film, as Birdman did, great care has been taken in transitioning from scene to scene. Similarly, there are moments where we realize certain story threads have been carefully interwoven through the film. An effect of this, however, is that one yearns for even more artful interweaving — and for it all to be tied into a neat bow, at that — but this isn’t that film. The narrative is a loose stream of consciousness (dreams of the subconscious, really), and has quite a lot in common with another metafictional, surrealist comedy-drama: Federico Fellini’s (1963).

Having achieved most of the film industry’s important accolades, Iñárritu is seizing the opportunity to have his bardo — his meditation of how far he and his homeland have come. He’s gazing beyond his navel, across the shared border of his two countries, and even back into time. His films have taken place in the U.S. plenty so the moment was ripe for an appreciative exploration of and return to Mexico. As Camila says: “The fruit tastes like fruit here.” (

Author rating: 7/10

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