Everything about Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's new film is on a big scale. The themes and ideas — involving identity, Mexican history, race, success, family and mortality — are big. The level of cinematic ambition is big. Even the complete title — "Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" — is a lot to wrap your head around.
But sometimes the bigger they come, the harder they fall — and in its initial showings at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, the hotly anticipated "Bardo" has gotten off to a rather rough start.
A phantasmagoric and surrealistic tour through the memories, dreams and existential anxieties of a famous Mexican journalist-turned-filmmaker named Silverio Gama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), "Bardo" represents above all a journey of personal exploration for Inarritu. Named after the Buddhist concept of a limbo between death and rebirth, "Bardo" deconstructs the complex and fraught identity of a Mexican immigrant who, like Inarritu himself, relocated his family to the United States for the sake of his career and achieved tremendous success, only to find himself feeling like a man without a country.
Any Inarritu project arrives with a formidable pedigree, which Netflix — releasing "Bardo" in Mexico on Oct. 27 and select U.S. theaters on Nov. 4 before making it available for streaming on Dec. 16 — would naturally leverage in its dogged pursuit of Oscar glory. All of Inarritu's films, from his 2000 debut "Amores Perros" through to his epic 2015 survival thriller "The Revenant," have earned at least one Oscar nomination ("The Revenant" earned 12). He is one of only three filmmakers ever to win back-to-back directing Oscars, for 2014's "Birdman" and "The Revenant," the former of which also won best picture.
But if Netflix hopes to follow the awards season playbook it set with 2018's "Roma" — another highly autobiographical film steeped in Mexican culture and history, directed by Inarritu's friend and countryman Alfonso Cuaron — it's looking like "Bardo" will face a bumpier road to Oscar night.
As L.A. Times critic Justin Chang wrote from Telluride, "[Inarritu] is hardly unaware of his reputation in some circles as an arrogant showman, a filmmaker who flings the camera around with empty, pummeling virtuosity." And "Bardo" — which runs nearly three hours long and doesn't have anything resembling a conventional narrative structure — has been pummeled in turn by a wave of festival reviews that deemed it a pretentious and bloated exercise in self-indulgence.
The L.A. Times spoke with Inarritu on Sunday as he was preparing to leave Telluride about his inspirations for "Bardo," the perils of success and how he feels about the often blistering reviews the film has received. (Spoiler alert: He strongly disagrees.)
Q: All of your films have taken big swings and involved big creative risks. But this one also involves big risks for you personally because you put so much of yourself into it and are laying parts of yourself bare. Does it feel more vulnerable for you to put "Bardo" out into the world than your previous films?
A: I think it's important to understand that this is a fictional movie. But obviously I brought a lot of personal things that I have gone through in order to navigate the themes that are pretty universal in my point of view that this character is going through.
In the end, for me, the film is about a broken identity and the feeling of displacement that you have after a certain amount of years out of your country, no matter which country. There are so many millions of people in the United States that have arrived from so many different countries, and that process of integration comes with it a disintegration. You start losing the sense of the roots that provide the meaning and the strength for that tree. That is the space between that I call "bardo."
That sensation is something that I know well so I brought things that were obviously very personal — especially emotionally — but it's a fiction. It's not a film about me. Nothing would be more boring than [a film] about me, for God's sake — I will never do that. But I can talk about that [theme] from a very particular point of view.
Q: Coming off "The Revenant" — which is a much more exterior movie with huge action set pieces and genre elements — why did you feel the impulse to turn more inward?
A: I think it has to do with my age  and the time that has passed. When your kids grow, there are challenges to try to understand the decision that I made — or any immigrant made — of leaving your country. When you leave your country, that comes with a lot of hopes and plans for the future, but inevitably also a lot of uncertainty and contradictions and paradoxes and challenges. So that's what triggered me five years ago that I started feeling that need to make a journey inward.
The movie is about memories, and memories and dreams do not have time. Luis Bunuel had a line that I love: "A film is a dream being directed." All these very intimate but very epic things build us as human beings, and I tried to put everything in — it's like in Mexico we have a soup called pozole. For me, it was an exercise of cinema, figuring out how to connect all that without a first act/second act/third act [structure] or a genre to guide me. It was like an adventure of consciousness.
Q: Among the many things the character of Silverio is wrestling with is his own success. Even as he's getting ready to receive a major award, he's plagued by this feeling that he can't enjoy his achievements or hasn't earned success somehow. You've experienced incredible success and won major awards. Is that sort of angst something you experienced?
A: Absolutely. You don't have to win an Oscar to be successful; it can be anything that you pursue that you feel will be life-changing but then does not necessarily bring you what you thought it would.
Success for me is like a bowl of smoke that, once you grasp it, it disappears. It is a mirage. My father used to say to me the line [in the film], "Be careful with success. Just take a little sip and spit it out because if not, it can be poison."
Q: In the movie, Silverio comes in for some harsh criticism from a former colleague, who tells him the documentary project he's working on is too long, too self-indulgent, too pretentious. Those same criticisms have been directed at "Bardo" in some of the early reviews. Did you include that critique in the film as a way of preempting the critics?
A: It's funny that you mentioned that because, yes, I predicted that because it's very predictable. I haven't read any reviews because I'm trying to enjoy the ride with my family but what I have gotten from the team is obviously there's that accusation. And I laugh my ass off. Because it's very easy to fall into the temptation to make these projections. I think it was a trap that [the critics] fell into very easily, especially in the culture we're in that is so reactive and so polarizing.
I think that I have the right to explore identity because I have been through this sense of displacement and I think I have the right to talk about that. I think I have the right to talk about the collective identity of my own country. This film is a love letter to my country, and I have the privilege that I can use my voice to really talk not only for Mexicans but for anyone who feels displaced.
This [film] is not self-referential. This is not narcissistic. It's not me. But I want somebody to explain why I don't have the right to talk about something that is very important for me and for my family. If I maybe was from Denmark or if I was Swedish I would be a philosopher. But because I did it in a powerful way visually I am pretentious because I'm Mexican. If you're a Mexican and you make a film like that, you're a pretentious guy.
I don't know if [the critics] have read Jorge Luis Borges or Jorge Cortazar or Juan Rulfo, but they should read where these things come from and our imaginary tradition of combined time and space in the literature of Latin America. This, for me, is the basis of the film. Why do I not have the right to work in that tradition in the way I like to do it?
Actually, that's exactly at the heart of the conflict of the character: this identity politics, the idea that a Mexican cannot be doing these things, that it's too pretentious, too self-indulgent. If it was a blond guy, another director, they can talk about their culture — their culture is something we understand.
You can like it or not — that's not the discussion. But for me, there's a kind of racist undercurrent where because I'm Mexican, I'm pretentious. If you don't understand something, you don't need to blame anybody. Guys, take a little time and see all the layers.
Every artist has the right to express himself the way he wants without being accused of being self-indulgent. I hope somebody can turn down that narrative, which is very reductive and a little racist, I have to say.
Q: A lot of critics have compared "Bardo" to other films in which directors have probed their inner lives and their pasts, like Federico Fellini's "8 1/2" or Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" or Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." Do you see "Bardo" as falling in that tradition?
A: The references are very limited. Borges and Cortazar were my two favorite guys — I had posters of them when I was 17 years old. This, for me, is in the tradition of that imaginarium. I think at the heart this film is very Mexican. I'm very excited about the Mexican reaction because at its very heart it's a film that speaks a lot about ourselves.
Fellini was a genius but he did not invent imagination in film. There's culture outside the Anglo culture. Let me tell you, we [Mexicans] have a little bit of culture, we have some emotion and imagination and baggage. And I have the right to talk about that and not be referred to as, "Oh, he's trying to emulate this or that."
Q: This is a movie that was clearly made to be seen on the big screen and Netflix is planning to give it a robust theatrical push. But still, did you wrestle at all with the idea of working with Netflix given how much streaming has disrupted the theatrical business?
A: When you make a foreign language film, it is not very easy to find finances, especially with the demands this film had. I started financing it myself and confronting rejections from most of the studios. Then Netflix came and the deal was, "I'm going to shoot it in 65mm and it's going to be a very immersive experience so I need the theatrical release" — I mean, that's the only way I can understand to make these films. And they agreed and they have been delivering that and I'm incredibly thankful. To give this film a seven-week release in Mexico on a lot of screens — that's breaking their business model. The support and freedom they gave me on this film was massive. Honestly, I couldn't have made it any other way.
This film is more a state of mind than a film. The center of gravity is emotional and visual. I'm sorry that some people didn't get it in that sense, or they want to, again, [make] a personal accusation. But I'm very proud of it. Cinematically I think it's my biggest achievement, much more than "The Revenant" or anything else. I know that it will stand [the test of] time.
But we'll see. The film has to speak for itself, not me. I think that's what I'm confident about.