In 2016, Alejandro G. Iñárritu walked to the Oscar stage to receive 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 being John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and the first since 1950. If there is a peak in the movie industry, it would be can be. But then Iñárritu disappeared – at least from Hollywood features. He had some things to wrestle with, about himself, his art, his family, his country. Those six years of introspection would take him back to Mexico to make his first feature film since his 2000 debut, Amores Perros.
“I needed to find a little calm and order in things that manifested in me emotionally,” Iñárritu said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Shooting in Mexico was a result of the process 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 mind of a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who left Mexico City with his family some 20 years earlier and found success in Los Angeles. While trying to write a speech to accept a great honor in his adopted homeland, he finds himself paralyzed by the weight of, well, everything from Mexico’s history to his concerns about his art.
The title plays on several meanings of bardo, as both a limbo between death and rebirth in Buddhism and bard in Spanish, and the film is a vast, droll dreamscape of emotion, family, home, identity and myth-making. It opens in limited editions in theaters Friday before hitting Netflix on December 16.
“This is a story without a story,” he said. “It’s a very different build from anything I’ve done.”
There are many parallels to 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 picks up on the pride of artists. It’s like Iñárritu is writing his own negative review about himself and it’s just one of many dense scenes where you can see the filmmaker dissecting himself.
“I’ve included some thoughts I have about myself,” he said. “And I can be stricter with myself than with anyone else. Much harder. I know what people think. And as (Silverio’s wife) Lucia tells Silverio in the film, ‘Sometimes we become what we think people think of us.’”
It was a humorous meta exercise, but for Iñárritu it’s important that people see Bardo as fiction as well. It has to be like this. To him autobiographies are just lies and hypocrisy.
“They claim truth and facts, but truth and facts do not exist,” he said. “Fiction is something that helps us do a higher truth and reveals what reality hides.”
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 had also closed their eyes in a way. They didn’t get to read the script before entering, instead doing extensive rehearsals starting six months before filming. By the time the cameras rolled, they felt so at home in their characters and with their fellow actors that they could just be there.
For Ximena Lamadrid, who plays Silverio’s grown daughter Camila, this process has allowed her to part from thinking too much about the big picture of dreams.
“I wasn’t like, oh, we’re part of this huge dream or this Silverio’s conscience,” Lamadrid said, “I felt and still feel that my character, our characters, are based on truth.”
Her character contemplates a return to Mexico, while her younger brother Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) questions his father’s romance about Mexico and tells him he feels more at home in the United States.
“When we started rehearsing and came into contact with each other, many beautiful things came out. And those were really good tools to use while shooting,” Solano said. “The characters had some specific things that were really going on in our personal lives. That was a really crazy coincidence.”
Many of the protagonists dealt with and were influenced by different themes and themes. A scene in which Silverio is talking to his late father left a deep impression on Cacho. He had lost his own father more than ten years earlier, but until then he hadn’t thought much of him.
“We were shooting and suddenly my father’s presence was there,” Cacho said. “When he died, I just forgot about him. From that day until now I have had great conversations with him. This was very special for me.”
Earlier this fall, Bardo had its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival. 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 the official festival cut. But at that point, while 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,” said Iñárritu. “I knew I was dealing with a situation, not a problem.”
The resulting film that will hit theaters and on Netflix is 22 minutes shorter, with some scenes cut completely, others cropped or replaced, and an overall sharper focus on Silverio’s family spanning two countries and two identities. And he’s happy with it whether it gets Oscar recognition or not.
“It will be interesting to see if this film can really touch the heart in a universal way. But there’s nothing we can really do,’ Iñárritu said. “I have a friend who says this phrase that I like, which is ‘low expectations, high serenity’. And that’s how we navigate this.”