I took my four-year-old cousin to the Frameless exhibition in Marble Arch the other day. For the two hours we spent there, a look of fascination did not leave her face. Later that day, I was able to experience a similar feeling, when I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths at the Curzon Soho. This is a film so erudite yet delicate, and also so challenging and emotional, that articulating what it is I adore about the film is no easy task. Alas, I humbly try.
In Tibetan Buddhism, Bardo is a state of existence between death and rebirth. This liminal space is beautifully chronicled in Bardo. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays a filmmaker – Silverio Gacho – who embarks on a surreal adventure through the corridors of memory. The film is approached by Iñárritu with his normal, masterful panache we’ve seen in his other films, but Bardo also differs from Iñárritu’s previous works marvellously; it feels a lot more personal, a lot calmer, certainly more so than the claustrophobic corridors of Broadway or the angry bears of South Dakota. When I first saw Bardo at the London Film Festival earlier this year, Iñárritu popped out before the screening and said to his audience that trying to grasp a plot line in Bardo, or trying to understand the film itself, is not at all necessary in order to appreciate the film. This is a truly invaluable insight. I think that Iñárritu was acknowledging that yes, Bardo is at times confusing, but you do not need to be a cryptologist to recognise its beauty; there is much in this film for the occasional movie watcher, as well as a feast for the avid cinephile. My advice for watching it would be to try and ignore your yearning for a plot, and instead float along with Silverio, and accompany him on this magical adventure.
With stunning visuals captured by an unintrusive camera that moves with a seraphic weightlessness throughout, here we have what may be Iñárritu’s finest film. Teeming with ambiguity (its ambiguity arguably being its most meritorious attribute), Bardo is an incredibly emotional film. The pain and hurt of revisiting Mexico’s and Silverio’s pasts are approached with surrealistic visuals and humour. Silverio seems to float through an existentialist crisis; clashing with his identity, his career, and his family – a metatextual reflection, perhaps, on Iñárritu’s own career. What I like about Bardo is how it contrasts films that cram plots and themes down the throats of its spectators, thus rewarding Bardo an elusiveness that allows its audience to arrive at their own, individually nuanced conclusion as to what the film is about.
It’s important to for me to acknowledge that Bardo does belong to a school of films often condemned as pretentious or meretricious. Y’know, those films where we float, via an extremely wide lens, through a mind-boggling swamp of ambiguity and philosophy and theology, to such an extent that these films tread a thin line between being life-altering and, well, let’s just say confusing. Yet I stand before you today as a humble advocate of (many of) these films, for what they uncover are nuances of beauty that are seldom captured elsewhere. It is these films that can open minds, eyes, ears whatever, in a manner that yes, does require some deciphering and commitment, but not in vain. Furthermore, such films are necessary; cinema would not be so marvellous and exciting if not for the eclectic mix of films in orbit. Undoubtedly, the key to a healthy lifestyle is balance, and this also applies to the cinema we watch; one day you may plunge into John McTiernan’s Predator, and the day after you might watch Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. There is a seemingly infinite library of film out there, so embrace it! Take a risk!
The ferocious induction into the outside-cinema world after seeing Bardo yanked me down from cloud nine, and I was overcome by a sadness that I could never see Bardo in the cinema again. But fear not, the film has been safely embalmed into the library of Netflix, and is now available to stream. For a leaving thought, I will say this: don’t make your mind up about Bardo until you see it. Don’t let its runtime intimidate you, and don’t let the swarm of contemptuous critics scare you away. I believe that Bardo should be approached with no prior wants or expectations; it was this method of approach that helped me to recognise Iñárritu’s Bardo as the masterful piece of cinema it is.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Film and TV Deputy Editor