In 2016, Alejandro G. Iñárritu took to the stage at the Oscars to accept the Best Director award for the second time in two years. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he said.
With his back-to-back 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’s a pinnacle in film business, that could it be. But then Iñárritu disappeared — at least from Hollywood features. He was struggling with some things, about himself, his art, his family, his country. Those six years of introspection brought him back to Mexico to make his first feature film since his 2000 debut, Amores Perros.
“I needed to find some peace and order in the things that were manifesting in me emotionally,” Iñárritu said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Shooting in Mexico was a consequence of the process I went through. It wasn’t the goal.”
The result, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, is a surreal journey into the subconscious of journalist and documentary filmmaker Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who left Mexico City with his family about 20 years ago and found success in Los Angeles. As he attempts to write a speech to accept a grand honor in his adopted country, he finds himself paralyzed under the weight of everything from Mexico’s history to his fears for his art.
The title plays with various meanings of bardo, both as the limbo between death and rebirth in Buddhism and bard in Spanish, and the film is a sprawling, whimsical dreamscape of emotion, family, home, identity and myth-making. It opens in limited edition theaters on Friday before hitting Netflix on December 16.
“This is a story without a story,” he said. “It’s a very different construction than anything I’ve done.”
There are many parallels to Iñárritu’s life in Silverio’s story. He too left Mexico 21 years ago and reached extraordinary heights in Los Angeles. In the film, a former colleague who stayed in Mexico criticizes Silverio’s work and life and skewers the artists’ hubris. It’s as if Iñárritu is writing his own negative critique of himself, and it’s just one of many dense scenes in which the filmmaker can be seen dissecting himself.
“I picked up some thoughts that I have about myself,” he said. “And I can be harder on myself than anyone. Much harder. I know what people are thinking. And like (Silverio’s wife) Lucia says to Silverio in the film, ‘Sometimes we become what people think of us.’”
It was a humorous meta-exercise, but it’s important to Iñárritu that people see “Bardo” as fiction as well. It must be. For him, autobiographies are just lies and hypocrisy.
“They claim truth and facts, but truth and facts don’t exist,” he said. “Fiction is something that helps us reach a higher truth and reveal what reality hides.”
Iñárritu likes to say that he did “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 also had their eyes closed in a way. They weren’t allowed to read the script before joining, but instead conducted extensive rehearsals that began six months before filming. As the cameras rolled, they felt so at home with their characters and their fellow actors that they could just be there.
For Ximena Lamadrid, who plays Silverio’s adult daughter Camila, this process has allowed her to break away from thinking too much about the big picture dream construct.
“I didn’t think, oh, we’re part of this big dream or this Silverio’s conscience,” said Lamadrid, “I really felt, and still feel when I saw it, that my character, our characters, are based on truth. “
Her character considers returning to Mexico, while her younger brother Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) questions his father’s romance with Mexico and tells him he feels more at home in the United States.
“As we started rehearsing and networking together, a lot of beautiful things came out. And those were really good tools to use when shooting,” Solano said. “The characters had some specific things that were actually going on in our personal lives. It was a really crazy coincidence.”
Many of the key players found themselves related to, and influenced by, different threads and topics. A scene in which Silverio converses with his dead father made a deep impression on Cacho. He’d lost his own father over a decade ago, but didn’t think much of him until this moment.
“We were shooting and suddenly there was my father’s presence,” Cacho said. “When he died, I just forgot about him. From that day until today I have had wonderful conversations with him. That was something very special for me.”
“Bardo” celebrated its world premiere in competition at the Venice Film Festival in early autumn. It was the first time Iñárritu had seen it with more than a few people. Thousands have seen it, and dozens of reviews have been removed from the official festival schedule. But in that moment, watching it with 2,000 viewers, Iñárritu made the bold decision to go back and re-edit the film ahead of its theatrical and Netflix release.
“Pain is temporary, but the film is forever,” Iñárritu said. “I knew I was dealing with a situation, not a problem.”
The resulting film, which will be released in theaters and on Netflix, is 22 minutes shorter, with some scenes trimmed entirely, others trimmed or replaced, and an overall increased 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 truly touch the heart in a universal way. But we can’t really do anything,” Iñárritu said. “I have a friend who says this phrase I like, which is ‘low expectations, high composure.’ And that’s how we manage it.”
Follow AP film writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.