Review: Alejandro Iñárritu’s freewheeling fantasia ‘Bardo’

In the swaggering, maximalist cinema of Alejandro Iñárritu, Iñárritu has, himself, never been all that far off the screen.

Since his blistering debut in “Amores Perros” to his seamless, surrealistic “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Iñárritu’s showman-like presence has been easy to feel prodding and propelling the picture along in a ravenous hunt for transcendent images and spiritual epiphany.

In “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Iñárritu has turned...

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In the swaggering, maximalist cinema of Alejandro Iñárritu, Iñárritu has, himself, never been all that far off the screen.

Since his blistering debut in “Amores Perros” to his seamless, surrealistic “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” Iñárritu’s showman-like presence has been easy to feel prodding and propelling the picture along in a ravenous hunt for transcendent images and spiritual epiphany.

In “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” Iñárritu has turned within with just as much zeal as he brought to a bear fight in “The Revenant.” As with all of Iñárritu’s films, “Bardo” isn’t just deeply felt but impassioned to the max, with grand designs to not just plunge into his own soul but that of Mexico, too. For a filmmaker always pushing for more — including those titles that stretch on and on — “Bardo” is his most ambitious and indulgent film yet.

“Bardo,” which has been trimmed since its rocky debut at the Venice Film Festival but still runs more than 2½-hours, is Iñárritu’s stab at a familiar kind of auteur magnum-opus project: the movie memoir. Like Fellini’s “8½,” it takes a tragicomic, circus-like approach in presenting the life of Iñárritu’s alter ego, a famous documentary filmmaker named Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho).

And while there are many dazzling moments to Iñárritu’s extravagant, fictionalized autobiography, it’s also tiresomely focused on no one but Silverio. For all its freewheeling surrealism — one scene puts the conquistador Hernán Cortés atop a pyramid of naked human corpses — “Bardo” is too self-obsessed to be much distracted by anything but Silverio’s mid-life worries: his mortality, his success, his family. Characters — including his wife, Lucía (Griselda Siciliani), and children, (Íker Sánchez Solano, Ximena Lamadrid) — pass by more like props to his existential journey.

When such inward-looking films work, I think, they’re filled with observations and portraits not just of the artist. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which shares “Bardo” production designer Eugenio Caballero in common, turned, really, on the housekeeper (Yalitza Aparicio). In Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” it’s the parents (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) that glow. Even in James Gray’s just-released “Armageddon Time,” which, like “Bardo,” was shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the focus is less on Gray as a young boy than on his family and classmates. For these filmmakers and many more, the self is less a protagonist than a prism — a starting gate not a finish line.

Unlike those films, Iñárritu’s self-portrait lives less in memory and more in the present — albeit a present peopled by ghosts. The film opens with the arresting image of a man’s long, thin shadow on barren plains. He’s walking then running and then with a skyward leap lifted — like Birdman or the opening dream sequence of “8½” — aloft. After the process repeats, he’s soaring above the desert when the film properly starts. Did he ever come down? Does he want to?

A similar question hovers over the film’s first proper scene. Silverio and his wife give birth to a baby, Mateo, who the doctors report would rather go back into the womb. The world’s too messed up, Mateo informs the doctors. Satirical news reports on television in coming scenes suggest the newborn has a point. Amazon, we overhear, is purchasing the Baja Peninsula.

Like passageways of thought, corridors and hallways crowd the early sections of “Bardo.” (It opens in theaters Friday and debuts next month on Netflix.) “Life is nothing but a series of senseless events and idiotic images,” Silverio says, explicitly stating not just a guiding principle of Iñárritu’s films but the overarching architecture of “Bardo,” a fantasia that flits between fantasy and reality. In one scene, a conversation between Silverio and an American politician that turns to the Mexican-American War, they’re surrounded by 19th century soldiers acting out a battle.

“Bardo” is Iñárritu’s first film made largely in Mexico since 2000’s “Amores Perros.” It’s a homecoming, and one very much invested in what it means for one of Mexico’s most famous Hollywood filmmakers to return home. A prestigious award awaits Silvio (Iñárritu, a filmmaker of assertive virtuosity, is coming off back-to-back best director Oscars) but he’s plagued by feelings of guilt for finding fame in Los Angeles. This is especially debated with a former colleague, a TV host who accuses him of being a pretentious sellout and criticizes him for profiting on the pain of undocumented immigrants. (Iñárritu, himself, made a powerful 2017 virtual-reality exhibit called “Carne y Arena” that put the viewer within a migrant experience.)

But how much sympathy can we muster for a wealthy, celebrated filmmaker on holiday? It’s hard not to roll your eyes when Silverio says things like, “Success has been my biggest failure.” The award ceremony scenes make up the largest section of the film, and I’m not sure why. Much comes across as a superficial spectacle of self-doubt. I liked “Bardo” more as a drama of dislocation, as an immigrant tale where no place, really, is home, anymore. There are a few scenes here that feel directly taken from Iñárritu’s subconscious. That ego gets in the way of insight is one of the subjects of “Bardo,” but also, maybe, its undoing.

“Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language throughout, strong sexual content and graphic nudity. Running time: 157 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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