This story was created in paid partnership with Netflix.
In Tibetan Buddhism, “bardo” refers to the transitional state between death and rebirth. It is the soul’s opportunity to witness the true nature of things and escape the tether and cycle of reincarnation. In that void, time and logic cease to exist and memory becomes an unreliable construct, Alejandro G. Iñárritu tried to explore. Bardo, A False Chronicle of a Handful of TruthsHis most complex, elevated, and above all, personal work to date.
“I have never prepared so much for a film,” said the Oscar-winning director Birdman And The Revenant says “It was a five-year journey from writing to production. Every sequence of the film was conceived, constructed, rehearsed, drawn, re-rehearsed and explored at length in terms of intent, motivation, internal rhythm, staging, lighting and camera movement. It was with a precision and total control that none of my films demanded from me. A plan executed well in advance.
On the face of it, Bardo Portrait of a Migrant – Journalist Silverio Gama, semi-rent to Iñárritu portrayed by actor Daniel Giménez Cacho. Like Iñárritu, Gama moved his family to Los Angeles in the midst of his own cultural prominence, yielding a fragmented identity. “Immigration is a way of dying, being born again and reinventing oneself,” Iñárritu says. Within that narrative structure, he sought to further explore ideas and notions of the nation’s collective consciousness, as the film plays like a love letter to the vibrant historical complexity of his native Mexico.
But it’s one thing to envision a cinematic dreamscape on the page, both in the mind and in the abstract. Bringing it to true life requires a spirit of collaboration in an art form that combines different crafts and trades together in the ultimate expression of the self.
“I put into practice a visual grammar,” says Iñárritu, “in a fluid form capable of flowing between close-ups, medium shots and long shots, thus weaving, invisibly, places where events take place at different times and on the border between reality and imagination.”
In his first collaboration with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji (Evita, an immigrant), Iñárritu sought a sense of perpetual motion with that visual language. The pair began by drawing inspiration from photographer Vivian Maier, painters Paul Delvaux and Giorgio de Chirico, and filmmakers Roy Anderson and Federico Fellini. Initially he embraced a large-format aesthetic, shooting on an Arri Alexa 65 camera with wide-angle Panavision lenses designed for film.
“It’s not the interpretation that interests me, it’s the presence of the actors,” says Khondji. “This camera has great presence.”
Everything was pre-conceived a year in advance, including many extended takes that required incredible precision to achieve. From the first-person, trancelike perspective at the film’s opening, depicting a shadow quickly passing across a desolate landscape while attempting to levitate, to the jam-packed sequence set in the famed El Palacio del Baile California dancehall, there was nothing about Iñárritu’s vision. Simple, even if everything is decisive in its concept.
So the art direction was comprehensive and immersed in its many details. Almost every one of the 51 sets created for the film was enormous. Iñárritu worked with Oscar-winning production designer Eugenio Caballero (Pan’s Labyrinth, Roma) in translating his wildest dreams into practical magic. For example, Silverio’s apartment — already full of pieces of personal identity and lived-in warmth — was flooded on a Mexico City soundstage before being dismantled and transported 180 miles to the Baja desert, where it was flooded again. . The set included fly-away walls that opened and closed with hinges and pulley systems, dams to divert water in specific directions, and more.
In another sequence, Caballero helps Iñárritu imagine his own large-scale art installation, before Silverio travels through the streets of modern-day Mexico City before climbing a mountain of piled bodies leading to explorer Hernán Cortés. The sequence was performed in the center of the Zócalo square, built in the center of the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which became the foundation of the city as we know it today.
“For me, it’s important to understand that there is another way of looking at the city,” says Caballero. “The downtown streets were all transformed. We worked on every facade so that every piece of graffiti, every bit of urban art had a specific meaning. We went from facade to facade, screen to screen, tone to tone. We left some stores intact, but we transformed others to have a mix of eras.
The aforementioned El Palacio del Baile California was quite the challenge, long past its prime and requiring structural support before Iñárritu and company could take it on and shoot there. Once it was completely revamped from a design perspective, Caballero brought in hundreds of mirrors to help Khondji with his elaborate lighting project, which included a series of cues set on a dimmer board to adjust the lighting in real time as he shot. Complexity requires weeks of rehearsal to refine and calibrate.
That scene was a bear for the film’s sound team, which had a variety of aural tasks to tackle throughout. Iñárritu says that before he begins the writing process, he contemplates the role of music and sound in his films. The director says that what we hear in cinema is raw. It is the frequency of the body hitting that is not analyzed like the visual data of a movie. It is a great opportunity for them to connect with their audience in a primal way.
“Alejandro’s voice memory is unparalleled,” says sound designer Martin Hernandez. “They can remember resonances, reverb times, levels. Bardo About his memory, or the way memories interact.”
In the dancehall, production mixer Santiago Nunez assembled the set with dozens of lavalier mics, booms, rigs and planted devices. Real space resonance was a definite treat. One show-stopping moment in particular features David Bowie’s popular song “Let’s Dance,” a cappella, and like everything else in the film, there was clear intent behind the choice.
“All the music I used was written in the script,” Iñárritu says. “Very early on, I had this crazy idea of using the song a cappella. I wanted people to immerse themselves in a radical perspective with the character. In this dream state, when you sing a song you love, you just hum the lyrics. How it sounds in your consciousness. You remove the music. I wanted that sensation. It’s a happy moment for Silverio.
The result unfolds in tracking over 800 extras for several minutes, with Silverio reveling in a sea of revelers.
In the end, the many tools at Iñárritu’s disposal as a filmmaker come together to produce a work that is at once intimate and epic. It is a reflection of national pride and personal identity, from an artist at a crossroads, eager and able to communicate those thoughts and feelings to a wider audience through the power of cinema.