Even attempting to describe the plot of “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” is essentially undoable.
This being the latest film from Oscar winner Alejandro González Iñárritu, the “rules” of narrative, such as they are, are tossed out the window from the first moment, when we behold the shadow of a man (maybe?) from high above as its unseen owner apparently takes long, running bounces across a Mexican desert landscape. It doesn’t get any easier to comprehend thereafter as we are introduced to Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), an aging documentary filmmaker who believes he can make a big comeback with a new film—but soon the movie he’s making, about himself, becomes the film we are watching.
Or does it? Maybe?
In the grand tradition of surrealism, it’s best to not ask questions that can have no logical starting point—thus any “answers” would be unsatisfactory anyway. It’s best to enjoy the dreamlike experience of this beautiful, haunting new film—which, at nearly three hours, takes its time with its delightful absurdity and toying with the netherworld between living, dreaming and transitioning to another form.
It’s not surprising that the word “bardo” comes from Budddhist philosophy, indicating a “time” in between death and rebirth that is part of the mythology of that ancient religion. Cacho, the film’s star, told me last week that the film isn’t about “death” since that word connotes the “end of something,” whereas what we are witnessing in “Bardo” is different entirely.
“In the movie you can feel and realize that there is nothing about ending. It’s a transformation,” Cacho said. “When the soul abandons the body, the soul goes to another level. And then there is a time [when] the soul is [either] going to be back into the world or go to another world.”
Seated next to him on the Zoom call was Ximena Lamadrid, who plays Silverio’s daughter, Camila. Lamadrid was so excited to work with Iñárritu that she said yes before reading the full script.
“I immediately knew it was going to be a masterpiece—something genuine and insane and beautiful,” she said, “so I was super excited to do it.”
Iñárritu and his team were already in pre-production in 2020 when the covid pandemic forced a hiatus for the better part of a year. All told, production took one year and eight months and 26 weeks of actual shooting, and included thousands of extras and multiple locations both in sets and on location.
But at the center of it all had to be a relatable hero, Silverio. Without him as an anchoring avatar, the whole experiment might not have worked.
“I grew as an actor,” Cacho said of his work in the massive film, adding that he built the character of Silverio in conjunction with many talks—and arguments—with his director. “It’s supposed to be the story of Alejandro, but…it became my personal story in such a deep way.”
“It was a very exhausting experience but in a good way,” added Lamadrid. “We had so much time, and [it was] such a privilege because mostly in TV and film you don’t. You have two hours sometimes to do a scene. But here we would have two days to three weeks to do a scene, which is so exciting because it leads to so many different outcomes.”
Iñárritu put his cast through acting exercises, which helped develop the familial energy between Silvio and Camila. At a remote Mexican hotel, the director also had his cast watch some of his favorite movies in preparation for this excellent adventure in moviemaking.
“And then on set…it was such a long process [that] we had a lot of time to get to know each other,” Lamadrid said. “I think Alejandro cast us knowing that we were awesome people and would get along and have a good vibe.
“He was a father to us, a family of friends, a brother.”
Among the film’s more sensational scenes is a moment where Silverio, somehow, converses with Hernan Cortez atop a pile of murdered indigenous warriors—who then begin to move, as if they are part of the movie-within-the-movie shot outdoors.
Later, Silverio and his family are seen arriving at an immigration checkpoint at Dulles airport, which was actually a ground-up recreation fashioned in Mexico City by production designer Eugenio Caballero.
“I remember getting on the set, and thinking ‘how?!’” Lamadrid said of the massive recreation of Dulles. “There [were even] conveyor belts in the back.”
“You can see the whole movie is filled with” such detail, said Cacho, adding that the design for the sets was fashioned “in order that Alejandro could shoot it the way he imagined everything.”
“I think every single scene was storyboarded, and then during the pandemic it was expanded” by Iñárritu, Lamadrid said, adding that the director was even specific about such minutiae as the timing of various extras’ phone camera flashes during a pivotal scene.
“Bardo” debuted at the Venice Film Festival September 1st, where it was much cheered. However, following Venice, Iñárritu trimmed the film from over three hours to its current length of 2 hours and 39 minutes. Lamadrid and Cacho expressed their love for both versions of this epic tale, even though each iteration emphasizes something distinct.
“The Venice cut…I had never seen anything like it done before in cinema. Ever,” said Lamadrid. “The new cut is excellent, and it focuses around the family in a little more tighter way. It gives you a different experience. Both are these surreal, amazing experiences.”
“I think the point Ximena is making is the most important,” added Cacho. “[In] the second version…the family becomes much more important—and I think that’s better.”
There is as of yet no word on whether audiences will get to behold both cuts of “Bardo,” but that may be answered when the film eventually comes out on Blu-ray.
“It blows you away every time more and more,” said Lamadrid.
Cacho added that while he “could follow it perfectly” on the page, his jaw all but hit the floor when he saw the finished product of “Bardo” for the first time.
“[For] like two days I couldn’t speak,” Cacho said. “And people were asking me, ‘But did you like it?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening.’”
Audiences are likely to feel the same way, given that “Bardo” plays according to few cinematic guidelines and narrative designs. Those seeking a traditional A-to-B-to-C plot will be disappointed, as will cinemagoers who are easily frustrated by cinema’s unique capacity to capture, in real life, the experience of being inside a dream or surreal realm—where logic and the provably real are both unwelcome.
Cacho offers his own philosophical understanding of both the movie and its creation.
“This was a very special work for me. I think also this was an encounter with Alejandro: We were meant to meet in this movie,” he said. “So I’m very thankful to him for this great [experience] that he gave me.”
“This film has given me a lot of experience, a lot of growth, internal and external, and taught me a lot about love,” added Lamadrid, “love for each other, love for ourselves. And I just hope that that message gets sent out.
“Love can be a very vague word, but when you watch the film, I think you can connect it to so many different aspects and scenes and journeys,” she said. “For me that’s so important, and I think right now we need that in this world.”
I concur, and for that reason, among many, I name “Bardo” the best film of 2022. Even now, more than a week after attending a screening, I can’t stop thinking about it and look forward to having it cast its spell upon me again.
“Bardo” is now playing in select theaters, and will be available on on Netflix on Friday.