“Ni de aquí, ni de allá”
This Spanish expression is commonly used by members of Latin American communities to describe shared experiences of immigration and biculturalism. Meaning “not from here, not from there,” the popular phrase alludes to a sort of geographical and ideological displacement—an uncertain, unsatisfying liminal space between cultures, nations and belonging. In Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, Alejandro G. Iñárritu compounds this labyrinth of intersecting identities with the concept of the bardo, an intermediate state between death and rebirth observed in Tibetan Buddhism. The result is a deeply moving cinematic experience that entangles threads of Mexican history with one man’s surreal odyssey through life, death, success and grief.
This fantastic voyage through time and space is led by Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), an acclaimed Mexican-born documentarian who has spent the last 15 years of his life living and working out of Los Angeles. When Gama is named the recipient of a prestigious American journalism award, the weight of that recognition—intensified by a family trip to his mother Mexico—sends the filmmaker into a spiraling existential crisis. Although he spends much of the film surrounded by his loving wife and children, Gama is primarily left to his own devices when navigating the overwhelming guilt and imposter syndrome that has been brought upon him by his overlapping identities of documentarian, father, son, husband, Mexican, American and immigrant.
Shot in stunning 65mm by cinematographer Darius Khondji, Bardo takes visual inspiration from Mexican artists José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros to craft enchanting visual landscapes of absurdity, chaos and fantasy. Similar to Orozco’s 1934 mural The Epic of American Civilization, Bardo often disregards spatial logic. Iñárritu frequently transports his protagonist across seemingly unrelated locations in order to establish spatiotemporal freedom and symbolic meaning.
In an early sequence, an unnatural body of water sends Gama from the inside of an L.A. Metro railcar to the floor of his family’s living room in a matter of seconds. The scene, which transitions seamlessly between its two settings, is the first of many unorthodox displays that see Gama transcend the physical limitations of reality to float between dream states of past and present; near and far. These surrealist visuals, combined with the film’s non-linear storytelling, creates an acute sense of disorientation throughout the majority of the film’s 159-minute runtime.
This sensation of geographical, atmospheric and narrative uncertainty are, at various times, both relieved and/or exacerbated by Gama’s contradicting views on Mexico and perception of self. These contradictions persist across the entirety of Bardo, but are easiest to observe during a party thrown in celebration of Gama’s American award at the California Dancing Club in Mexico City. Looking out from the club’s rooftop, Silverio remarks about the capital, “Que hermosa esta ciudad tan fea.”
“How beautiful this ugly city is.”
Shortly after, when Gama’s wife invites him inside to dance, Iñárritu glides the camera through the crowded dance floor to find his protagonist and his loved ones. Once he sets his sights on him, the film lingers on the filmmaker and his family for minutes, allowing it and its viewers to savor the sonic joy of the loud cumbia music permeating the screen. In a sequence that feels like it’ll go on forever, we watch the filmmaker connect with his children in a way we hadn’t yet seen. There’s a closeness and harmony that only cumbia dancing allows. The energy is electric, joyous, contagious, raw—an undeniable celebration of Latin culture, music and dance.
But there are other interactions at the party that invoke a different type of introspection: Before this sequence, when Silverio is greeted by his siblings, he is referred to as “prieto” by a sister. This remark recalls an earlier scene, one where the documentarian is being hounded by an ex-colleague in front of a live television audience. The interviewer asks something to the effect of, “Is it true that your family nicknamed you ‘prieto’ growing up and was embarrassed that you were the darkest of the siblings?” For context, “prieto/a” is a derogatory term for those of dark complexion and is frequently used against Indigenous and Afro-Mexicans. Like the majority of its surrealist elements, the film does not linger too long on the use of the term, but its inclusion is intentional—aimed at igniting a conversation about the colorism and anti-Blackness that is still prevalent in so many of our Latin American communities. This ugly reality is just one of the many grievances Gama, and the film, wrestle with in respect to their relationship with Mexico.
Other issues addressed include cartel violence, class inequality, the unexplained disappearances of Mexican citizens and colonial history. Although it seems like a lot to cover under three hours, the film’s nonlinearity and surrealism create an “anything goes” atmosphere where everything and nothing feels out of left field. As its namesake suggests, the film assumes a liminal position in its views of Gama’s home country. In Bardo, Mexico is simultaneously an amazing and deeply flawed country; this observation feels authentic to the Latin American experience, where many immigrants have good reasons to have fled their homes, but also good reasons to miss it now that they’re gone. What’s more is that these observations remain just that, observations. Bardo has so much confusion, pain and frustration to air, but it expresses itself without lecturing, scolding or claiming to have all the answers. It simply encourages an open dialogue across these complicated themes.
Bardo often feels like an inside joke—and for the first time in a long time, I get the jokes. I understand the cultural significance behind Gama’s family being América fans. I’ve felt the joy of dancing my heart out to cumbia with loved ones. I understand the feelings of shame and rejection that can arise when being bicultural in a country that doesn’t always accept different. To me, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths not only describes the sentiment of “Ni de aquí, ni de allá,” but creates an opportunity for its viewers to feel and understand those very emotions of fear, confusion, uncertainty and dissatisfaction. The film’s non-linear narrative may challenge our desire for familiarity and structure, but this unconventionality invites a deeper understanding of its subjects and filmmaker. Bardo is best approached not as a film, but as an affective experience. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, but we’re stuck in limbo—pleasant isn’t the point.
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Writer: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Griselda Siciliani, Ximena Lamadrid, Íker Sánchez Solano
Release Date: November 18, 2022 (Theatrical), December 16, 2022 (Netflix)
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.