Review: Director Alejandro Iñárritu pushes the audience to the limit in Netflix’s ‘Bardo’ – SF Chronicle Datebook | Episode Movies

Daniel Giménez Cacho and Ximena Lamadrid in Bardo: False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths. Photo: Netflix

The bad news first: no one in the history of the world will ever wish for Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths to be like this longer. This film will challenge the audience’s patience as much as it can, with 159 almost plotless minutes revolving around a film director in his 60s examining his life.

The director, played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, is clearly a stand-in for the film’s director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, so it’s basically two hours and 30 minutes from this guy. Iñárritu (“The Revenant”, “Birdman”) risks alienating his audience and being charged with a level of self-indulgence not seen since the days of Jerry Lewis.

But he gets away with it. He does more than that. Iñárritu has made a film that is beautiful and at times profound. It’s boring here and there, though only here and there. For the most part, “Bardo” pulls through and holds the audience’s attention from beginning to end.

To appreciate this film the way it deserves to be appreciated – and to have the experience you deserve – you need to know two things. The first is the meaning of “bardo”. It is a Buddhist term for a state between death and rebirth. The soul left the body, but it went nowhere. It’s hanging around, making sense of what just happened – like the whole life it’s just lived.

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Bardo: False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths. Photo: Associated Press

The second thing you need to know is how Bardo works. Most films captivate an audience through the story. We want to know what happens next. “Bardo” works differently. There’s not much of a story, so there’s no ongoing plot to take you from scene to scene. Instead, Iñárritu relies on each scene being interesting in its own right. This means that every time a scene ends, the viewer has an option – continue or stop watching.

The brilliance of what Iñárritu is doing here is that if you watch a scene in “Bardo” for 30 seconds, you will Look out. But you have to be willing to give him those 30 seconds at the beginning of each scene. You have to work with him a little bit.

For example, the first shot of this film shows the elongated shadow of a man in a desert landscape. The shot stops and I have the same uneasy feeling as at the beginning of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”, which showed the floor being wiped again and again. Here we go, for two hours a director torments the audience, supposedly for our own good.

But then the shadow starts to move – the man runs – and unexpectedly the shadow gets smaller, indicating that the man has left the ground, that he is flying. OK, that’s different.

Next scene: A baby is born. Nothing we haven’t seen before. But then the doctor tells the mother that the baby wants to go back. Next, we see the doctor push the baby head first back into the uterus. I didn’t see that coming either. And all this in the first 15 minutes of the film.

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Bardo: False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths. Photo: Netflix

Every scene in Bardo is like that – strange, unexpected, unsettling, but not strange for the sake of being strange. There is a consistent vision, a questioning, a despair and a wonder at what it all means. Part of “Bardo” concerns the director’s questioning of his own identity as a Mexican, since he owns a home in the United States and his young adult children were raised there.

But mainly this is a film about the age of about 60 years. Iñárritu knows that the questions get rawer with age. It’s no longer “What is the meaning of the universe” but rather “What have I done?” and “Is there any point?”

Visually, “Bardo” is not just pretty or eye-catching, but consistently imaginative and original. There is a dance scene where the camera meanders through the dance floor non-stop for minutes. It’s one of the most dazzlingly virtuosic recordings you’ll see on screen this year.

M“Bardo: False Chronicle of a Fistful of Truths”: Theatre. With Daniel Gimenez Cacho. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu. (R. 159 minutes.) In select theaters on Friday, November 11. Available to stream on Netflix December 16th.

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