We've all had the occasional existential crisis, but none so beautiful and epic as the one captured in writer/director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's newest film, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. The film, shot on gorgeous 65mm and partially set in Iñárritu's homeland of Mexico, follows a prominent documentarian Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) as he grapples with the ethics of his work, the complicated history of Mexico, and his identity as an individual with one foot in the U.S.
It's a trippy journey through memories and locations imbued with fantasy—Silverio sometimes communicates telepathically, brings historical events to life around him, and faces his own doubts in vibrant, literal settings. The work is deeply personal, and some understanding of that helps decrypt the film. But the story works because Iñárritu is such a skilled director, and he and co-writer Nicolás Giacobone know exactly how to take the audience through this complex tale, and the stunning visuals from DP Darius Khondji support it.
Screenwriters and directors love to get creative with their storytelling, but at times they get caught up in self-indulgence or attempts to be clever. They can let the characters monologue without saying anything thematically impactful. Or they rely too much on unique imagery that doesn't really contribute to the story. There are lots of ways to stumble when making a large, meditative project like Bardo.
Let's take a look at three things we can learn about magical realism from Iñárritu. (Spoilers for Bardo to follow.)
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Silverio in 'Bardo.'Credit: Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.V. Courtesy of Netflix
Establish magical realism from the first frame
There's a hint of the film's content in the title itself. "Bardo" is a liminal state between death and reincarnation, according to Tibetan Buddhism, that place after dying and being reborn. So it makes sense that the story would occur in this space.
And the film begins like a dream I've had many times, in a disembodied first-person point of view running across the desert, leaping so high it's like trying to fly. The protagonist's shadow rises above the scrub, not quite effortless, before coming down again. It takes several tries before he is truly airborne.
The dreamlike imagery, the unseen protagonist, the first-person POV, and the flight all combine to set the tone. It's familiar, but not real. And all of this happens in the first few moments of the film. Now we're flying along with Silverio.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu behind the scenes of 'Bardo.'Credit: Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.V. Courtesy of Netflix
Give it a throughline
Magical realism shouldn't just be random. Imagery, music, sound, and leaps in time and setting should all make "sense," to some degree, or at least be tied to the story's central themes.
Of course, you can be weird. Go wild in your sandbox—put together the most Lynchian work you like. But it will help if you're actually able to connect with your audience, and they can understand the story you're trying to tell.
With Bardo, knowing the meaning of the title and its supposed implications is helpful here. We can assume limbo will come into play. Iñárritu is focused on this concept even where the scenes initially seem disconnected, and he makes sure to tie up all thematic threads by the end of the story.
In the film's finale, we realize Silverio has suffered a stroke and is in a coma. His mind wanders in bardo, relieving key moments from his life and finding some closure in mistakes and lost opportunities. He attempts to find order in his memories and how the public viewed him. At times, the "real world" intrudes on his wandering in the form of disembodied voices, news reports about his own stroke, the loss of his voice, etc.
Simple visual cues also help guide the audience on this journey. In one of the film's most striking sequences, Silverio sees pedestrians collapse on the street around him. The sun wheels overhead into night. He follows street dogs to Zócalo, where there's a pyramid of bodies upon which Hernán Cortés sits. After a debate on the "conquest" of Mexico, the scene transforms into a movie set, signaling the end of the scene.
As written, these all feel like disparate moments, but visually, in the film, they work and make sense. Iñárritu is saying something specific here and making sure the audience can come for the ride.
'Bardo'Credit: Limbo Films, S. De R.L. de C.V. Courtesy of Netflix
Characters still matter
Of course, none of this would be remotely watchable if we didn't care about Silverio, his relationships with his family, his ongoing conflict with a former friend and critic, his complicated pride in Mexico, and how he struggles as an artist. He is both tender and irascible, proud and self-critical. He makes mistakes just like a real person does.
You can start with a fun concept for a story, or an interesting image of axolotls on a Los Angeles train, but don't stop there. Beginning filmmakers sometimes have great ideas, and think that's enough. Take it further by constructing three-dimensional characters to occupy those scenes and carry the audience through your plot. Give your protagonist relatable goals and conflict that will engage the viewer. Unique images are nice, but make sure you're saying something thematic too.
Are you excited to see Bardo? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Bardo is streaming on Netflix Nov. 18.