Words by Jimmy Dougan
A few weeks ago, I finished reading Roberto Bolaño’s extraordinary 1998 novel The Savage Detectives. I’m still in mourning – if only I could’ve found a way to prolong it, to stretch out the final, haunting evocation of the Sonaran Desert.
The book is an almost encyclopaedic depiction of a semi-fictional literary movement, Visceral Realism, but it’s also a head-spinningly vivid evocation of pre-millennium Mexico, a place too busy being born to notice the trouble brewing amongst its youngsters and literary juveniles.
The case Bolaño makes is pretty simple: literature is vital, with books a cornerstone component of any civilised society. A society that doesn’t read is one that doesn’t care.
Enter, then, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new film for Netflix: Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths – the newest film from the maverick director of 2014’s Birdman and 2015’s The Revenant.
The ghost of Bonaño lurks in every frame of this dazzling film, depicting post-colonial Mexico at a crossroads between past and present, young and old, struggling to define itself in a globalised age. I could feel my copy of The Savage Detectives boring holes into the back of my skull as I greedily booked a ticket to a pre-release screening at the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) ahead of a Netflix release on the 16 December.
Bardo follows Los Angeles-based Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Mexican journalist and documentarian, returning to his native country after hearing he is to receive a prestigious award for journalistic ethics. He begins experiencing strange hallucinations and surreal adventures, the lines between memory and fantasy becoming increasingly blurred.
Iñárritu’s film depicts the endpoint of all Bolaño’s concerns: art has become a commodity. Bardo shows a shallow and joyless society, one built on atrocity and trauma but obsessed with clicks and content. Risk-averse and dull, this world contains about as much excitement as swimming in a children’s paddling pool.
The cinematic language Iñárritu’s film employs is something else entirely – forget leaving reality at the door, he’s left it at home.
This film is a beautiful, melancholic story about what it means to be an artist in the increasingly strange moment we’ve found ourselves in, and what truly constitutes a ‘home’.
Is it four walls and a roof? A family? An O-1 visa?
Iñárritu is far too canny to give us an answer, but one of the great joys (and trust me, there are many) of Bardo is just how much this notorious director eschews conventional ideas of narrative, and storytelling, to present a personal yet universal portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man.
At the middle of it all is Cacho’s performance as Silverio. Derided for leaving his home country to find greater success in the States, Silverio is hated for his new docudrama, A False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, which is about the conquistador Hernán Cortés. It’s no coincidence that with his tanned skin, greying hair, and sunglasses, Silverio bears a striking resemblance to Iñárritu himself, a director who made one film in Mexico in 2000 then went to America to earn greater plaudits (and fortunes).
Cacho’s performance is one of brutal honesty and sadness, he resembles a clown not quite in on the joke. Like the viewer, he ambles through the film and greedily jumps from memory to fantasy. It certainly helps that Cacho is surrounded by one of the strongest casts assembled this year. Particular highlights include Griselda Siciliani as Silverio’s wife, Lucia, and Ximena Lamadrid and Íker Sanchez Solano as their children.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is one of the year’s best films. It’s a work of capital ‘S’ Serious cinema to which agnostics need not apply. It asks for a lot from audiences, a 160-minute attention span included.
It’s a stunning new entry into the Mexican cinematic canon, and one which takes up the gauntlet Roberto Bolaño threw down to the Mexican literary establishment in 1998. Here is a new Mexican myth for the post-Trump age. Iñárritu’s point? Artists matter, and a society that doesn’t value artists can’t be called a society.
Exquisitely shot by Darius Khondji on 65mm film, this challenging film is self-indulgent, joyous, funny, sad, startling, and anything but boring. And, if you commit to this film in the way it deserves, if you carve out the time to step into the strange and beautiful dream Iñárritu has crafted, you will be rewarded.
One of my favourite lines from The Savage Detectives is as follows: ‘Nothing happened today. And if anything did, I’d rather not talk about it, because I didn’t understand it.’
Bardo, Fale Chronicle of a Handful of Truths will be released on Netflix on 16 December.
Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths – Official trailer
To read more about Roberto Bolaño visit: www.panmacmillan.com/authors/roberto-bolano
To read more about MAC’s cinema and screenings lineup visit: www.macbirmingham.co.uk/whats-on/cinema