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Courtesy of Netflix

How Alejandro G Iñárritu made the strangest Netflix film of 2022

The surreal project has critics divided – is it artful genius, or a bloated mess? We asked Iñárritu himself to share some insight

After winning consecutive Oscars for Best Director in 2015 and 2016, Alejandro G. Iñárritu faced a dilemma: what next? Birdman was a snappy comedy that satirised Hollywood’s super-seriousness, while The Revenant was a super-serious drama unlike Birdman in every way. Well, Iñárritu won another Oscar for a VR short, Flesh and Sand, in 2017. Otherwise, he’s returned with an audacious, love-it-or-hate-it piece of autofiction: Bardo, The Film You Make When You’re An Auteur Whose Films Have Won Eight Oscars and Netflix Are Willing to Fund Your Ambitious Passion Project.

Really, Iñárritu’s seventh feature is called Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths, but it’s in the film’s spirit to invent your own subtitle. In the opening scene, a shadow soars across a desert. In the next, a baby calls the world “too fucked up”, and returns inside its mother’s vagina to the womb. From there, Bardo continually upends expectations, juggling humour, tragedy, and how-did-they-do-that? set-pieces, as it follows a protagonist who sounds oddly familiar: Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a Mexican filmmaker who, after winning a prestigious prize in Los Angeles, faces an existential crisis upon returning to Mexico. By chance, Bardo is Iñárritu’s first film to be mostly shot in Mexico since his 2000 debut, Amores Perros.

In Corinthia Hotel during the London Film Festival, Iñárritu initially struggles to answer my questions about drawing from dreams, or if the free-flowing rhythm was inspired by his early career as a radio DJ. “I want you to understand that it took me five years to put this film together,” he says, smiling. “To explain it with words, with logic, is almost betraying the film.” He pauses. “But I could do some work to help you.”

The word “bardo” is a Buddhist term for the limbo period after death and before the next life. It’s also, in Bardo, symbolic of Silverio as a Mexican-born, LA-based artist who’s in-between countries. “When you transport a tree from one place to another, it dies a little,” Iñárritu says. “You’re trying to find yourself again.” As for my technical questions about screenwriting, he replies, “Honestly, there was no structure in the planning of it. That was a deliberate decision.”

It’s hard to imagine Bardo on the page – unless it’s a dream diary. Silverio climbs a pile of dead bodies to debate with Hernán Cortés at the top. His dead father returns via CGI in a bathroom. At a party, David Bowie’s isolated vocals for “Let’s Dance” play, because, Iñárritu explains, when Silverio knows a song, he primarily hears the lyrics. It was also shot by Darius Khondji (Okja, Uncut Gems) on 65mm. “If you allow yourself to fly in a dream,” Iñárritu says, “you’ll get what this film is doing.”

And if you don’t allow that? Well, at Venice Film Festival, Bardo received mixed reviews, with Variety labelling it “monotonous”. Subsequently, Iñárritu re-edited the film from 174 to 152 minutes. (A backlash to the backlash is brewing: the New York Times called the new cut “the work of a prodigious and unruly talent”.) On chopping off 22 minutes, Iñárritu remarks that he was killing his darlings: “I’m sure film students would be interested [to compare the versions]. I could share with them: ‘Do not make the mistakes I did.’”

However, Iñárritu counters, “There’s nothing that’s right or wrong. You just need to know the heart of your own expression. Now, we’re creating with so much fear about what others will say. I think young people like you, when they’re creating, are thinking about how things should be, or how they’ll be understood, or if they’re easy to assimilate. That’s not right. If it makes sense for me, then it’ll make sense for somebody – maybe not everybody. But that’s the core. And that’s what we have to defend really passionately.”

“A film isn’t necessarily to tell a story. A film can express a feeling, a dream, an emotion, a sensorial atmosphere that can transport you, not necessarily with storytelling” – Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Is he referring to the internet? “It’s overwhelming. I don’t have social media, and I never will. If I did, maybe I wouldn’t have created this movie, because I would have been paralysed by the amount of opinions and notions of what things should be.”

Despite Iñárritu’s popularity with the Academy, a portion of critics, particularly in America, have been vicious in their takedowns. For instance, in 2014, a high-profile writer started a Birdman review by calling Iñárritu a “pretentious fraud”. Yet after a growing frustration from the film community that movies are increasingly reliant on superheroes, franchises, three-act structures, television-style visuals, and repetitive themes – why is Bardo being slammed for its ambition, sincerity, and free-flowing approach?

“You’re touching on a very important point,” Iñárritu says. “Everyone complains about how homogenous film – and content, as they now call it – is getting. Everything’s shot with the same grammatical language. But a film isn’t necessarily to tell a story. A film can express a feeling, a dream, an emotion, a sensorial atmosphere that can transport you, not necessarily with storytelling. And when that happens, they complain.”

In an LA Times interview, Iñárritu implied that if he wasn’t Mexican, certain critics wouldn’t be so quick to call him “pretentious”. However, today, he’s reluctant to comment further. “In the end, people have the right to like it or not,” he says. “That’s great. That has to happen. It’s not for everybody.”

He does take umbrage, though, with accusations that Bardo is “self-indulgent” or “arrogant”. “It was a very vulnerable and fragile way to open myself up. It’s my wounds, not my power. It’s my insecurities. The things I have fucked up… If that’s considered narcissistic, then I welcome that. I invite everybody to talk about themselves.”

I bring up Robert Downey Jr’s interview with the Guardian in 2015. In response to Iñárritu calling superhero movies “cultural genocide”, Downey Jr. quipped, “For a man whose native tongue is Spanish, to be able to put together a phrase like ‘cultural genocide’ just speaks to how bright he is.” In 2022, a public figure – including journalists – wouldn’t make that statement, but perhaps their racism is expressed more subtly?

Again, Iñárritu wants to avoid the subject, except for noting “the accusation of racism was taken out of context”. Instead, he says, “The film is extraordinarily Mexican. It comes from a huge culture of painting, music, the maximalist way we express ourselves, the great writers who explored intimate autofiction with no rules, no structure. The film has a lot of humour. I’m harsher with myself than anybody else. It’s the culture I come from.

“If you want to put that in your conception of what ‘it should be’, that can become a problem. But it’s not the problem of the film. It’s the limit of knowledge of certain people. Which I understand. But some accusations were completely outrageous and don’t have any place when you review a film. The personal things are like: ‘Wait a minute, how do you know me?’”

Even though the interview has overrun, Iñárritu stops me before I leave: he wants to know my thoughts on the film, primarily if I related to Silverio’s children. I tell him that, yes, I connected to its abstract depiction of displacement. “That’s important,” he says. “It’s a weird thing to convey to anybody that has never had those problems.”

Bardo is out in UK cinemas on November 18, and will stream on Netflix from December 16