Alejandro G Iñárritu, Oscar-winning creator of such movies as Amores Perros, Birdman and The Revenant has now returned to his Mexican homeland for this quasi-autobiographical epic, sprawling across a personal magic-realist dreamscape where fact and fiction shapeshift into each other in ways which are technically stylish and massively insufferable.
It’s a quite staggeringly self-indulgent and self-congratulatory film – somewhere on a continuum between Fellini and Malick – about a Mexican journalist and documentary film-maker who has been lavishly rewarded in the US and is now receiving a big prize, usually given only to Americans. (Iñárritu has, I suspect, a slightly sketchy idea about the working lives of actual journalist-slash-documentary film-makers, as opposed to those of colossally important Oscar-winning feature directors.) But now, at this moment of triumph, our hero finds himself in a midlife crisis of identity, plunged into a rabbit hole of memories and hallucinatory anxieties about his family, his career and Mexico itself.
The elegant veteran performer Daniel Gimenéz Cacho plays Silverio, the award-winning film-maker whom we see first in LA (a surreal and poignant scenario to which we will finally return) and then in his Mexican home town where he is trying to secure an interview with the US president – an interview the US ambassador is offering to set up on condition that Silverio abandons his criticism of the White House’s anti-Mexican racism. In fact, we hear a bizarre news story about an attempt by Amazon to buy outright the Mexican state of Baja California as a vast fulfilment centre – a pert piece of satire that alerts us to the fact that this film is produced by Netflix and not Amazon.
Silverio is loved and admired by close friends and family but his journalistic contemporaries have something else in their hearts, revealed in the gigantic party thrown for him by his media comrades in Mexico City – a kind of awestruck envy combined with resentment in the way he has left them behind, commodifying Mexican poverty and wretchedness for the gringos in his films about the experiences of immigrants and the drug business. A certain rancorous ex-colleague, who now hosts a top-rated but horribly crass TV show, tries to get him on for an interview but Silverio fears he will be ambushed with questions about his vulnerable childhood and racist cracks about his indigenous background.
He is particularly resented for his hugely successful docufictional epic about Mexico, entitled A False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, which playfully imagines what the conquistador Hernán Cortés was thinking and feeling in a brutal yet whimsically imagined scenario of conquest – a scenario Iñárritu later duly re-inserts into Silverio’s story, which has the effect of semi-seriously making Silverio and Cortés of equal importance in this New Mexico myth.
The film is speckled with brilliant individual moments: there is a stunning sequence in which the streets are littered with the inert bodies of Mexico’s “missing”: the vanished people claimed by poverty and crime, heartlessly ignored by the state. And there is a bravura scene in which Silverio comes face-to-face with the ghost of his poor old dad and tries to say all the things to him he should have said while he was still alive.
There a shrewdly depicted scene in which Silverio, for all his activism, takes his family to a super-rich vacation resort where servants are not allowed on the beach – and another when Silverio demands the US Immigration official at LAX apologise for saying that as a Mexican national with an O-1 visa he is not entitled to call America “home”. That last one is where the movie seems most intensely autobiographical (but maybe Iñárritu and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone imagined the whole thing).
It is made with real panache – so much so that you can forgive much of the film’s outrageous narcissism. Iñárritu could, if he chose, tell us an equally painful but less grandiose and auto-mythic story about his own life – but he has exercised his prerogative as an artist and given us this confection instead. It is certainly spectacular.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths screened at the Venice film festival; it is released on 18 November in cinemas and on 16 December on Netflix.