I love a great movie debate, and on only its second day, the Venice Film Festival has kicked off a robust one. As I walked out of the press screening for Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s lengthy new film “Bardo,” I thought I had just watched Oscar catnip, the kind of movie that awards voters typically go gaga for.
Then I talked to other people.
“Bar-NO,” texted one critic. “Three hours? So self-indulgent,” said a film festival programmer. And in a hotel elevator later that day, an Italian woman segued smoothly from complaining about the weather (“Horrible!”) to the movie (“Also horrible! Why does he have to copy Cuarón?”).
She was implying that “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (to use its full title) takes more than a few cues from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” and there are certainly some similarities: Like his friend Cuarón, Iñárritu is a Hollywood-venerated filmmaker who has returned to his native Mexico for a Netflix-financed autofiction teeming with long takes, digital tricks and stunning cinematography.
The streaming service certainly hopes that “Bardo” can net the same Oscar nominations as the laureled “Roma” (which wound up taking three statuettes), and with Iñárritu at the helm, there’s reason to be bullish: Every film he’s made has received at least one Oscar nomination, and he’s coming off back-to-back best director wins for “The Revenant” (2015) and “Birdman” (2014), as well as a best picture victory for the latter film.
So will award voters respond more favorably than that initial wave of Venice filmgoers would indicate? I think so. Certainly, the plot will resonate more with them: “Bardo” is Iñárritu’s riff on “8½”: it’s a surreal dramedy about Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a documentarian making sense of his life story. Though he’s prone to dreamlike visions, Gama’s problems are the kind that middle-aged Hollywood types can relate to: Do I deserve my success, or am I a fraud? Have I spent too little time at home with my family? Will my children be spoiled and entitled?
After Iñárritu shot “Amores Perros” in Mexico in 2000, he and his family moved to Los Angeles to pursue mainstream Hollywood success, just as the “Bardo” protagonist did. In many ways, Gama is a thinly veiled Iñárritu stand-in: He’s attired just like his creator and haunted by an old collaborator who now shuns him, which may be a reference to the rancorous professional breakup between Iñárritu and the co-writer of his early films, Guillermo Arriaga.
But though the film acknowledges Gama’s flaws, it doesn’t really examine them. Characters tell Gama that he’s too self-involved, too bougie, too fake, and we have to take their word for it, since Gama just shrugs and moves on. Giménez Cacho is appealing but passive in the role, which may inhibit a robust awards run, but the film can definitely rack up several technical nominations: Darius Khondji’s cinematography is superb, and all of Gama’s visions — apartments flooded with sand, subways steeped in fish-tank water — are brought to incredible life by the production designer Eugenio Caballero (who also worked on “Roma”).
Past that, we’ll see how well the film connects with the Hollywood types it’s portraying, and whether Netflix is willing to push it as hard (and as expensively) as it did “Roma.” Certainly, “Bardo” implies that streaming services have the coin for it: One of the movie’s most successful jokes is that in the world of “Bardo,” Amazon is about to complete its successful purchase not of a new awards contender but of the entire state of Baja California. Compared with that, what’s the cost of a few hundred for-your-consideration ads and some private planes?