In 2016, Alejandro G. Iñárritu found himself walking up to the Oscars stage to pick up the best director award for the second time in two years. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
With his consecutive wins for Birdman and The Revenant he had become one of only three directors, the others are John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, to do so and the first since 1950. If there is a peak in the movie making business, that might be it. But then, Iñárritu disappeared — at least from Hollywood features. He had some things to wrestle with, about himself, his art, his family, his country. That six years of introspection would bring him back to Mexico to make his first feature set there since his debut, Amores Perros, from 2000.
“I needed to find a little bit of peace and order in things that were manifesting in me emotionally,” Iñárritu said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “To shoot in Mexico was a consequence of the process that I went through. It was not the destination.”
The result, “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” is a surreal journey into the subconscious of a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who left Mexico City with his family some 20 years prior and found success in Los Angeles. As he tries to write a speech to accept a major honor in his adopted home country, he finds himself paralyzed by the weight of, well, everything, from Mexico’s history to his anxieties about his art.
The title plays into various meanings of bardo, as both a limbo between death and rebirth, in Buddhism, and bard in Spanish, and the film is a sprawling, droll dreamscape of emotion, family, home, identity and mythmaking. It opens in theaters in limited release Friday before hitting Netflix on Dec. 16.
“This is a story without a story,” he said. “It’s a very different construction from anything that I have done.”
There are many parallels with Iñárritu’s life in Silverio’s story. He also left Mexico 21 years ago and reached extraordinary heights in Los Angeles. In the film, a former colleague, one who stayed in Mexico, criticizes Silverio’s work and life and skewers the hubris of artists. It is as though Iñárritu is writing his own negative review about himself and it is just one of many dense scenes in which you can see the filmmaker dissecting himself.
“I included some thoughts that I have about myself,” he said. “And I can be harsher with myself than anybody else. Much harsher. I know what people think. And as (Silverio’s wife) Lucia says to Silverio in the film, ‘Sometimes we become what we think people think about us.’”
It was a humorously meta exercise, but it is important for Iñárritu that people see also Bardo as fiction. It has to be. Autobiographies, for him, are only lies and hypocrisies.
“They claim truth and facts, but truth and facts do not exist,” he said. “Fiction is something that helps us to arrive to do a higher truth and reveals what the reality is hiding.”
Iñárritu likes to say that he made Bardo with his eyes closed, looking inward to find a superior kind of reality or truth that is “infinite, chaotic, contradictory and terrifying.”
The cast also had their eyes closed in a way. They didn’t get to read the script prior to joining, but instead did extensive rehearsals starting six months before the shoot. By the time the cameras were rolling, they felt so at home in their characters and with their fellow actors that they could simply be present.
For Ximena Lamadrid, who plays Silverio’s grown daughter Camila, this process allowed her to separate from thinking too much about the big picture dream construct.
“I wasn’t like, oh, we’re part of this huge dream or this Silverio’s conscience,” Lamadrid said, “I really felt and I still feel watching it, that my character, our characters, are based in truth.”
Her character is considering a return to Mexico, while her younger brother Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) questions his father’s romanticism about Mexico and tells him that he feels more at home in the United States.
“When we started rehearsing and started to connect with each other, a lot of beautiful things came out. And those were really good tools to use when we were shooting,” Solano said. “The characters had some specific things that were actually going on in our personal lives. That was a really crazy coincidence.”
Many of the main players found themselves relating to and being affected by various threads and themes. One scene, in which Silverio is conversing with his dead father, had a deep impact on Cacho. He’d lost his own father over a decade prior but hadn’t thought much about him until that moment.
“We were shooting and the presence of my father was suddenly there,” Cacho said. “When he died I just forgot about him. From that day to now, I’ve been having beautiful chats with him. This was very special for me.”
Bardo had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival earlier this fall. It was the first time Iñárritu had seen it with more than a few people. Thousands saw it, and dozens of reviews were written off of the official festival cut. But, in that moment, watching it with 2,000 people, Iñárritu made the bold decision to go back and re-edit the film before its theatrical and Netflix releases.
“Pain is temporary, but the film is forever,” Iñárritu said. “I knew I was dealing with a situation, not a problem.”
The resulting film that will play in theaters and on Netflix is 22 minutes shorter, with some scenes cut entirely, others trimmed or replaced and an overall tightened focus on Silverio’s family who are straddling two countries and two identities. And he’s happy with it, whether it goes on to get Oscar recognition or not.
“It’ll be interesting to see if this film really can touch the heart in a universal way. But there’s nothing really we can do,” Iñárritu said. “I have a friend that says this line that I like, which is ‘low expectations, high serenity.’ And that’s how we are navigating this.”