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Bardo review – Iñárritu’s epic comedy is an occasionally brilliant exercise in self-absorption

Though this three-hour autobiography can be irritating, it's also a visual marvel with a surprising amount of proper entertainment

Though, on the whole, I find it to be a mostly useless and unfounded criticism, the word “pretentious” can rarely be more fittingly applied to a film than to one by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Even in his best and most visceral work, The Revenant, his notoriously demanding directing style and grasping at a cod-Malickian sense of philosophical and spiritual richness gives off a distinctly self-regarding vibe, and it’s this mode, dialled up to way beyond 11, in which Bardo arrives. An autobiographical “epic comedy,” it’s an occasionally brilliant piece of work that is self-critical, self-congratulatory, self-justifying, and ultimately just self-obsessed.

Iñárritu’s stand-in in Bardo is Silverio Gama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a world-renowned Mexican journalist and documentary-maker who is about to receive a prestigious American reward, the first Latin American to win that specific honour. Unsure what to make of the celebration and worried that it’s simply a liberal hand-wringing exercise from guilty-feeling white Americans, Silverio starts to spiral, his worried mind starting to fracture across a series of surreal set-pieces.

Inarittu clearly has a hell of a lot to say in Bardo (a title that refers to the liminal zone between life and death), about himself, about stories, and about Mexico as a whole, and the most obvious result of this is how bloated so much of it feels. It’s not that the admittedly intimidating near-three-hour runtime is too much, more that individual scenes seem to stretch on for eternity. Whenever Iñárritu switches gears, it’s a thrill, every turn entirely unpredictable, but he just needed to do it far more often to keep these moments engaging.

Somewhat surprisingly after the early word, Bardo can actually be very entertaining – no-one but Iñárritu is bothering to create surreal spectacle on this scale, and the dreamlike state in which Bardo mostly finds itself lends itself perfectly to these aims. Is anything real, or is it all in Silverio’s head, or is it all part of an ultra-ambitious new documentary? It’s all these things and none, and it doesn’t really fundamentally matter, a choice to actively defy conventional logic that allows for some fantastic showstopping moments (see; a 19th century castle siege or a hostile conversation between Silverio and conquistador Hernan Cortes), but also stops you from really feeling anything.

The bizarre and the provocative can be exciting and powerful tools, but to choose them exclusively ahead of anything genuinely affecting is ultimately a weakness for a film that is asking us to care about it for three hours, one that also renders most of the acting pretty weak. Even Cacho’s lead performance is mostly just a vessel for Iñárritu’s monologuing, while the women are, somewhat inevitably, particularly weakly served. Silverio’s wife Lucia (Griselda Siciliana) and daughter Camila (Ximena Lamadrid) get second and third billing but are just ciphers through which Silverio and, by extension, his creator can better understand themselves.

As you’d expect, Bardo is a visual marvel, absolutely crammed with brain-spinning imagery and the kind of grand long-takes (often featuring dozens or even hundreds of extras) that show off an absurd confidence and intricacy of planning. DOP Darius Khondji, who also shot the scuzzy glory of Uncut Gems, is basically doing an Emmanuel Lubezki impression throughout Bardo, but it is a damn good impression, vast vistas and endless skies soaking the action in grandeur and natural light.

Without a doubt, Bardo is indulgent, pretentious, and even irritating, taking an enormous amount of time to deliver little in the way of emotional payoff. Yet, it’s also filled with moments of excellence – Inarittu is one of our great visual artists, and there’s always a value in celebrating that – that keep boredom at bay and end up imprinted in your brain. Whether anyone watching it on a small Netflix screen will be able to stick it out to the end is another matter, but in the cinema, this has just enough entrancing spectacle to be worth grappling with.

Bardo was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 18 November.

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