After two decades away, Alejandro González Iñárritu has found his way home. The Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Revenant returned to his home country of Mexico to make a film for the first time since his feature debut, 2000's Amores perros, made him an international sensation.
His homecoming, Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, is undoubtedly Iñárritu's most personal film to date. The story follows Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a renowned Mexican filmmaker living in Los Angeles, who is compelled to return home after winning a prestigious international award. There, he's pushed to his existential limit as he's not only confronted with his own past, but the history of a country that, in many ways, he no longer feels he is a part of, despite calling it home.
"I wanted this film to feel like liquid memory, like when we dream," Iñárritu explains. "Everything moves, and you accommodate your memories, and your images, and your emotions depending on the day and depending on your age and all things, you just accommodate. It's being transformed the way you remember things and how you use it."
For the filmmaker, that meant interrogating his own experience of being an emigrant. "You need to accommodate everything. That's why it was the time for me to speak out and say, 'This is what it is.' Stop pretending that everything is success. No, there's a lot of things going on, and people don't know that."
In a conversation with A.frame, Iñárritu reflects on his experience leaving Mexico only to return for Bardo, and discusses why now was the time for him to tell this story.
A.frame: How would you describe this film to a friend or a neighbor who hasn't read anything about it, or hasn't seen the trailer?
I think that any description will do a disservice, but what I will say is, go without the expectation to be told a story. Be open to just experience, to go through a cinematic experience through images and sound. Turn off your rational autopilot demanding logic, and allow yourself not to understand, but just to feel and let yourself go in a dream. That's the way I think I will explain better than to describe, because it is an experience. An experience cannot be described. It can only be experienced by each person in a different way.
What was the creative starting point for Bardo? Because this is very much a film composed of sequences, it's not your traditional linear storytelling, and you've described it as a dream.
Exactly. I was trying to attempt, in a way, to dissolve and erase the lines between genres and conventional storytelling. I'm at this moment in my life where I was a little exhausted about it. I wanted to explore cinema where boundaries and borders start to melt and dissolve each other, and really enhance the visual and audio elements, which is the very definition of cinema. I wanted to get people in a mental state and a mental landscape of a character that everybody can suddenly jump in and identify and believe as a lucid dream, which means that you are aware that you are dreaming.
Those are the best dreams, right? Because when we know that we are dreaming, we don't want to wake up. I hate when somebody wakes me up when I know that I'm dreaming. It's such an amazing thing, because it's to be in a cinema literally. Anyway, I wanted the whole grammatical language of this experiment — let's put it that way — to be about that. It was about making people feel as [if they were] living in a lucid dream.
Given how personal the film is, why was this the right time in your career to tell this story?
Because I could have not made this film before. I think that so many things have happened in the the 21 years that I have been in this country that there's a lot of absence that starts to accumulate, things that have been lost and things that have been gained. But I thought that coming from where I'm coming from, a humble Mexican family, to where I am now, it has been a journey, I have to say. The unique, and privileged, and complicated situation that me and my family have had, I thought that it would be something that many people in the world will feel the same in a different way. That's why these personal things, I fictionalized them, in order to liberate it from the facts. And, through the fiction, to get to a higher understanding, and higher truth of it, and make them universal for everybody.
I did The Revenant seven years ago, and I had a lot of time to really reflect. And I did Carne y arena with the immigrants, and that brutal reality really hit me hard. It brought up many questions. I was interviewing more than 500 immigrants, and it triggers in me a lot of things that I needed now to share. All that accumulation of emotions, and reflections, and thoughts, and contradictions, suddenly it demanded I take care of it and do a film not with the eyes open, but I did this film with the eyes closed. Meaning that I have to go inward and look at the material inside. It demanded I be honest, and to be vulnerable, and to be fragile, and to share that, because I thought that I had been running in a car at 300 miles per hour without looking in the rear mirror. I have not looked back for a long time. So, it was a good moment to pause and put all these experiences and contradictions in a very complex experience.
"I'm ready in my life to surrender, to let go, to detach and to not ask permission from anybody to do what I need to say, the way I want to say it, and when I want to share it."
Speaking of vulnerability, were there any moments as you were putting this project together or during shooting that hit you a little bit harder?
Well, I think the emotional part and the vulnerability comes when you are going into introspection. I wanted to be very honest. My wife and I lost a kid, and very early, very young. It was our second kid. Our third boy too, born with the same disease, and we spent one month with the third one in the intensive care unit. It was a very traumatic experience very early on. You realize that life can go away from you so rapidly, so unexpectedly. It changed the way you perceive and live your life, and see the future, and your present. It took a long time to really hold those things, and as Silverio [the main character in the film] said, the persons and the people that we lose, they are gone, but it's the ideas of these people that stay.
What you do with those ideas and those emotions, it's a learning process of growing and letting go. This film is about that. I'm ready in my life to surrender, to let go, to detach and to not ask permission from anybody to do what I need to say, the way I want to say it, and when I want to share it. From those things to very painful collective memories of my country, Hernán Cortés and the Spanish Conquest, the American-Mexican War — things that have been hurting all of us as Mexicans and have been defining us about how we behave, who we are. All these things, I was carefully putting together when I was bringing them to the table as ideas, and feelings, and images. Once they became sequences, and when I was fleshing them out, and when I was executing, it took a lot of time. When I was doing it, honestly, I was not emotional at all. I said that I felt like a surgeon. During open heart surgery, the doctor cannot be emotional, because you know that, if you get emotional, you can kill the patient. When I was shooting the film, I was just a general trying to get things done.
Let's talk about identity and the immigrant experience. Why was it important for you to capitalize on those moments in the storytelling?
My family and I left Mexico 21 years ago. Time passed so fast. It was never the plan, and it has been difficult. Mexico is going through a very difficult moment. It hasn't been easy, because my family and friends, the roots has been there for all of us, and for my kids too. In a way, adolescence is about looking for your identity, but when you don't have the roots even from the soil, it becomes a little more difficult. You are something that you don't understand either. In a way, the distance and the time has been creating a lot of fractures, identities, emotions, and a lot of contradictions. You know that, even if you want to go back, you can't, because you do not belong there anymore, but you don't belong at the new place where you are at either.
You arrive to that in between. I share this with millions of immigrants around the world, that no matter how beautiful the new country is and the opportunities, whether we're privileged or not privileged, success or not success, that doesn't matter. The exterior things do not fix the emotional needs and nostalgia, melancholia, and all what you need as a plant. It's a very contradictory thing.
I talk about my mother, who is going through early dementia, and my father, who passed away. All the things that you left are lost. As a family, we have been living as gypsies for the last 20 years. Friends appear and disappear and the inconstancy and the impermanence of the whole thing is what the film is about. It's memories. A memory is just a memory of a memory of ideas that are changing and it’s that elusive, dissolving maturity. Immigration is that. It makes you feel that everything is just like sand, that you take it but it just... There's nothing grounded. That's the feeling of being an immigrant. I think that's the best way I have defined it in my life.
The film focuses on a filmmaker returning home to Mexico, and Bardo is very much the film where you're returning to Mexico as well after Amores perros. What did that mean for you to be back after 20 some years?
Again, the country that I left is not that country anymore. I'm not that person that left that country either. What people get from you when you return is not what they expect and what you are getting of that country is not what you expect. The mutual expectations normally meet some kind of deception, but at the same time it is like meeting an old friend, that the love and the affection is there, with the contradictions and with the joy and with the intensity and with the love. I had to integrate myself to the way everybody works there now, and they have to understand how I'm working and what were the needs of the film. It took time, but it was beautiful. Again, it was like reuniting with an old friend that is a new person, that you don't know, and you need to start to know them again. It was a very meta experience, because it was informing me about what I wrote about the character who was going through the same things.
Reporting by Elisa Osegueda