My head is full of images from the extraordinary and dreamlike movie Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
How can I erase the vision of hundreds of “disappeared,” thrown on the streets of downtown Mexico City. Or the pyramid of dead indigenous people on the Zócalo. Or a conversation with an Hernán Cortés who smokes. Or the long and magical take of the dance at the California Dancing Club? Or the mythical combat of the child heroes of the Chapultepec battle against foreigners with blond wigs. Or those giant steps in the middle of the desert along the border?
The first part of the movie that stuns – which was made for the big screen but will be available on Netflix within a few weeks – is the director’s masterful skill for creating impossible worlds. There’s nothing outside his reach. A movie maker can tell any story. Or invent it. A traumatic part of the history of Mexico is the same as bringing back to life a relative who died years ago. Bardo moves from dream to reality and back, without warnings or notice. His world is liquid.
Life can be touched on the screen because of those fluid takes, without cuts and several minutes long, that Iñárritu explored in Birdman and have since become his trademark. He puts us behind the camera and invites us to see what he is seeing.
Bardo is very ambitious and is not afraid of big ideas like identity, migration or death (which Iñárritu touched on in 21 Grams). And he drags us inevitably into the Mexico of his youth, just as he did with Amores Perros. But it is, without a doubt, Iñárritu’s most personal movie, with many autobiographical elements. Actor Daniel Giménez Cacho plays the role of journalist Silverio Gama, and lands the director’s ideas, masterfully and loaded with nuances. He proves, what’s more, that he’s one of the best actors of his generation.
The movie has supremely painful moments, like the loss of a son and the grief of a quarter century. Nothing can shut that off. That burden is forever. And the director has the luxury – that gigantic pleasure that only art can provide – to recreate the chat he never had with his father when he lived (How many of us would want something like that? Movies are so wonderful …)
But Bardo is, above all else, a return trip: to those personal issues that still obsess Iñárritu and Mexico. The 59-year-old director has lived in the United States for 21 years, but he suggests that not a day goes by when he does not think about Mexico. The movie explores with unmatched honesty the conflicts and tensions of those of us who inhabit two countries at the same time.
Iñárritu, like millions of us, lives with his family in the United States but is emotionally anchored in Mexico. Almost all the time. Thinking about a return to the place where you were born and raised may be temporary, but it is constant. And that complicates the adaptation – or is it integration – to a new country.
Those of us who left – those of us who had to emigrate – are sometimes from both nations, and sometimes from none. And sometimes there are identity mix ups almost impossible to define. How many of us have not been confused and wound up in that famous “little room” at a U.S. airport, for a second and bothersome inspection of our immigration status and documents.
There is a scene in which the family of the protagonist returns from Mexico to Los Angeles and an immigration official tells the father – who has a work visa – that the United States “is not your home.” Almost all of us Mexicans working abroad have faced that. We are never totally accepted in the United States – “you are not from here,” they tell us, even though we have lived here for decades. But we also feel rejection when we return to Mexico. They accuse us of being traitors, opportunists and abandoning family and friends.
The movie does not resolve that conflict. It leaves it latent, pulsing. Those of us who are from two countries, like Iñárritu, live lives full of doubts and uncertainties. Is it possible to stop being Mexican? Was going to the United States worth it? Does what we have achieved compensate for what we left behind?
The balance for Iñárritu is unquestionably positive. His American adventure has brought him professional success. His five Oscars, his Golden Globe and innumerable other awards are more than enough to prove it. More important still is the creative freedom to make whatever films he wants. Like Bardo. Had he stayed in Mexico, none of the above would have been possible.
There’s no sense of regret or guilt in the movie. One suspects that if he had to chose, Iñárritu would again leave Mexico. Nevertheless, the price of success – and of leaving – has been very high, and leaves invisible wounds. Clearly, something is lost. It is the time spent with those who stayed, lost and never to be recovered. Distance hurts.
And whether we like it or not, immigrants loose touch with the Mexico where we grew up little by little. We love Mexico and wear the green when the national soccer team plays. We are more Mexicans from a distance. But at the same time, from that distance we have a very critical view of the country because of the violence, the corruption and the terrible inequalities.
Bardo is the way in which Iñárritu makes his peace with his decision to leave. But don’t expect a lineal story. They are dreams – sometimes monumental – and jumps best understood with the heart. I found myself in the nooks and crannies of the movie, and I am sure that other migrants like me in the United States will have similar experiences. The magic of Iñárritu was to make something universal out of something so personal.
I write this, in fact, aboard an airplane flying from Miami to Mexico City, home to the majority of my relatives and best friends. I am accustomed to this aerial back and forth. The need to return, even if not permanently, is inside me.
And as I fly, my mind is still populated with the images of Mexico I saw in Bardo and which, curiously, make me feel better. Those who left are condemned forever to imagine their return. And a movie, when done with talent and soul, offers you that opportunity.