Crises in Mexico have a way of taking on their own unique expression. Indeed, many in Mexico have come to believe that, rather than marking a sharp turning point, crisis is the permanent state of affairs.
There is a long tradition in Mexican literature and the arts that explores this existential condition. Most prominently, Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) suggested that Mexican culture was trapped in the present tense yet aware of another, more spiritual dimension. In his chapter on Día de los Muertos, Paz explored the rituals in Mexican culture that mock death but also court it, thinking of it at once as a favorite plaything and as a lasting love of mestizos. Samuel Ramos, José Vasconcelos, Carlos Monsiváis, Elena Poniatowska, and others have also written about the mestizo identity, its roots in Indigenous civilizations, and how Mexican culture has always been in a state of constant tension and unresolved uncertainty.
These concerns, especially as they relate to the tortuous, crisis-driven relationship that Mexico maintains with its northern neighbor—dictator Porfirio Díaz, who ruled the country implacably for more than three decades at the turn of the 20th century, purportedly said, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States” (a line every Mexican makes fun of)—are central to Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s disjointed, unnerving, divisive, Fellini-esque autobiographical film Bardo. Made of lengthy sequences about mile-long umbilical cords, Halcion-driven dreams over large desert expanses, and carnivalesque parties in which sexualized bodies parade like dead souls, Iñarritu’s film is one that challenges its viewers to make sense of it, although it becomes clear rather early that Iñarritu himself doesn’t know what its true message is. Perhaps it could be said that the film itself is in crisis.
Early in Bardo, we meet the protagonist, Silverio Gama. He is a 50-ish, guilt-ridden Mexican journalist turned documentarian who emigrated to California years ago to pursue a film career and is in the midst of completing a project called False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. At several points, while riding the LA Metro, Gama carries a plastic bag full of water in which a number of axolotls—the fish-like salamander native to Mexico City that many in the city see as a symbol of their larval identity—swim around. It is Gama’s present to his teenage son, Lorenzo, whose own pet axolotl appears to have died in the not-so-distant past. He doesn’t have a chance to deliver them, though: Gama has a heart attack right on the subway. The next image we see is of the subway car being filled with water, with axolotls whirling on its surface.
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Like the faded Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson in Birdman or the fur-trading frontiersman in The Revenant, Silverio Gama is a typical Iñarritu protagonist. In Iñarritu’s films—from 21 Grams to Babel and Biutiful—the main character tends to be arrogant, unhappy with his success, disdainful of others, and toxic in his masculinity. What bothers Gama is not that the world is off-kilter but that he is not in full control of it. The term bardo, borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism, describes a state of existence between death and rebirth, one that, depending on the person’s journey, might be short or long. For Gama, this in-between state never seems to end as he moves back and forth between Mexico and Los Angeles, where he is about to be the first Latin American ever to receive a prestigious American journalism award. Some old friends and acquaintances back in Mexico denounce him as a sellout for having left the country as part of its national brain drain, while in the United States he is often perceived as a cliché and a token in the age of diversity.
For most of the narrative, Gama (played by the talented Daniel Giménez Cacho) wanders from one surrealist sequence to another without a clue. At one point, he’s in downtown Mexico City as one passerby after another, like zombies, suddenly collapses to the ground. When asked by Gama what is happening, one of them says that they are all desaparecidos. Next, we see them in the zocalo, Mexico City’s main square, in a state of limbo, as if they are desperate souls in search of redemption.
At another moment, Gama joins the US ambassador at Chapultepec Castle, the site where, at the end of the Mexican-American War, a number of Mexican child cadets supposedly threw themselves off the castle’s rooftop rather than allow the invading army to take them as prisoners. (About a century later, the incident of the Niños Héroes—a perpetual battle cry for Mexican nationalists—was revealed to be a myth.) In the film, the Niños Héroes surround Gama and the ambassador, erasing the thin line between the past and the present.
One of the film’s most attractive elements is undoubtedly the camera work by the Iranian cinematographer Darios Khondji, who has also worked with Bernardo Bertolucci, Peter Handke, and Bong Joon-ho. (His work in Iñarritu’s film has been nominated for an Oscar.) The magnificent shots of the desert in San Luis Potosí, of colonial architecture in Mexico City and the urban skyscape of Los Angeles, of Playa Balandra in Baja California, and of the inside of theaters and discotheques distill the disjuncture that connects Gama’s inner and outer odysseys.
As the film goes on, we realize that while the cinematography might be sumptuous, Bardo is also about excess. Gama is always in crisis, with no respite to allow viewers to catch their breath. Although there are scenes where the protagonist sees his parents and siblings, it is hard to know their purpose. At other moments, Gama is shown enjoying his success as a documentary filmmaker in the United States, even being recognized on the street, though it isn’t clear if this is meant as a celebration or a critique of fame. The film’s surreal atmosphere traffics in a magical realism that has already been rendered a cliché by countless second-rate imitations of Borges, García Márquez, and Cortázar (whose 1956 story “Axólotl” appears to have been one of Iñarritu’s inspirations for the film). But there are also moments of intense beauty, as when Gama lies in bed, in a coma, while his family and friends surround him as if they are attending a wake. Gama looks as if he is performing his death in front of them, and they in turn appear to be performing their sorrow.
Gama, we learn, is undergoing a metamorphosis, but of an uncertain nature: He is oscillating between life and death, neither in Mexico nor in the United States but trapped in his own convoluted, axolotl-like consciousness. Mexican culture is often weighed down by the past and thus not entirely free to engage with the future.
Iñarritu is one of a triumvirate of contemporary Mexican directors—the others are Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro—who have reinvigorated Hollywood in the last couple of decades. Iñarritu’s best movie remains his debut, Amores Perros, a three-part exploration of Mexico City from the perspective of a young working-class dog fighter, a homeless man, and a Spanish model who suffers a catastrophic car accident. (In fact, the accident is the centerpiece of all three stories.) The screenplay was written by the Mexican novelist Guillermo Arriaga, Iñarritu’s close collaborator in the early stage of his career, and the film is an extraordinary example of what the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño called infrarrealismo—a gut-punching style that doesn’t shy away from depicting urban violence in vivid colors.
Bardo moves in a different, more ambiguous, and more ambivalent direction. Perhaps for this reason, Iñarritu struggled at first to raise the money to make it. Netflix eventually signed on, but the deal came with its own difficulties: The company asked him to cut 22 minutes from the film. Iñarritu faced his own problems: At nearly two hours and 40 minutes, Bardo still feels too long and yet also seems to be missing some needed coherence. In spite of its readiness to portray Mexicans as ethereal beings, the movie offers little insight into Mexico’s cultural traditions. The country Iñarritu portrays is semi-modern; it experiences life with gusto yet often complains of being sidelined, surrounded by ghosts, never achieving its full potential.
No doubt Bardo is engaging with Paz’s and other Mexican writers’ mythologizing of mestizo identity. Yet instead of expanding or elaborating on this canon, the film sometimes feels like it rehashes what we already know but does not tell us anything new. Viewers wait for a twist that will make the film’s many parts cohere as a whole, a way for Iñarritu to make their presence organic. Patience runs out. Crises aren’t explored but needlessly enlarged—a labyrinth inside labyrinth.