Back-to-back Oscar-winner Alejandro G. Inarritu is not a filmmaker who does half-measures. His “one-shot” comedy Birdman involved up to 20 takes per scene. The chilly thriller The Revenant was shot in hypothermic conditions, with Leonardo DiCaprio compelled to eat raw bison liver. And Inarritu’s new movie, the 159-minute dramedy Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, comes equipped with epic tracking shots, CGI babies, and one scene involving what can only be described as a mountain of corpses.
Following the hopes and regrets of a middle-aged Mexican journalist and documentarian Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) – who in his career arc, family makeup and even hairstyle resemble Inarritu himself – Bardo aims to walk a line between dream and reality, each world pushed to their extremes. And typical of Inarritu’s work, the film has sparked a polarizing reception – you are either on the director’s wavelength, or not.
Ahead of Bardo’s theatrical release – it will be opening in select Canadian cinemas Nov. 18, before streaming on Netflix Dec. 16 – The Globe and Mail spoke with Inarritu about craftsmanship and critics.
You’ve recently said that Bardo is the most complicated film that you’ve ever made. Given what you went through on The Revenant, I find that surprising.
There are two essential elements here that make it the most difficult one. First, the fabric of this film is so unusual and elusive from the material I’ve worked with before – it is not chronological or linear or rational storytelling. It is coming from the subconscious, memories and emotions and dreams and imagination. And that means predesigning everything to create this dream sensation. To make the audience feel what you want them to feel. There were a lot of extras and precise camera movements and physically challenging technical things.
Given the film’s semi-autobiographical nature, why did you decide to make the main character a journalist and not a filmmaker? Although, granted, he is involved in filmmaking through his documentaries …
I liked the idea of the journalist because that way you have the ability to get into the real world to look for the facts and the truth – but at the same time every journalist ends up interpreting those facts, making it a subjective point of view. I like the idea of this character being in crisis about what is true and what is fiction, which is where I am at the moment.
Could you see yourself being a journalist in a different life?
I think that every journalist is a filmmaker in a way. In Babel, for instance, I did a lot of research about what it was like crossing the border. Biutiful was about African and Chinese immigrants, so I did a lot of journalistic research there. When I did my virtual-reality installation Carne y Arena, I interviewed more than 500 immigrants. Fiction is a representation of the facts, but going to a higher kind of level. There is a filmmaking part in every journalist, and every filmmaker is a journalist.
Journalism and criticism are closely linked, though, and you’ve said that you’ve avoided reading reviews of Bardo coming out of Venice. Are you ever tempted to go back?
No, I have no reason to do that. A good review or a bad review will never make a film better or worse. I’m convinced about that. I made the film, I know the reasons why I did it. People have the right to make their opinions, but there is nothing I can get from that. I’m not talking just about bad reviews, even the good ones. It’s important to have the courage to be disliked. Or to be liked! Both can be dangerous.
You do have some fun with it, though. In Bardo, there is a kind of pre-emptive strike with the competing journalist character of Martin, who criticizes much of what the audience has just witnessed. And then his voice is magically rendered mute by Silverio.
I’m talking here about the different ways that brains work. For me, that scene is a discussion between Silverio and his nemesis about the two positions of life now. We can work with the left part of our brain or the right. There is an important book for me, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, where you can understand where we are in the world right now. I know perfectly that people who are rigid, who demand logic to everything, will be fighting against this movie. Maybe some people took it personally. But I see this polarization of the world we’re living in. Do you agree with that, as a journalist?
I can see that, but you could argue the scene constitutes a pattern, given that you also included a critic character in Birdman, as a villain. It feels like having your criticism and eating it, too.
No, I’m not afraid to be criticized to be honest with you. To be disliked is part of what a piece of art should do. In this case, it isn’t a critic but another journalist who is trying to guide people to the way that he sees the world, so it’s different from the discussion in Birdman, which was precise about the tradition of theatre criticism. This is a much more broad discussion about seeing the world. I invite you to read that book!
You should have Netflix strike a deal so that every subscriber gets a free copy of the ebook.
It’s fascinating! The exercises that you see there, there are things that you will feel completely in tune with.
This version of Bardo is 22 minutes shorter than the one that played Venice. What prompted the cuts?
There was a very clear moment for me when I saw the film for the first time with 2,000 people in a theatre. I finished it two days before going to Venice, so when I saw that, I saw the opportunity to make things clearer, to get to the point of the film without affecting the essence of the film. It’s like going on a diet. It’s the same person, but in better shape.
This interview has been condensed and edited.