Guillermo Del Toro Is Flabbergasted By The Reactions To Alejandro González Iñárritu's Bardo

From the time "Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths" premiered at this year's Venice International Film Festival, it was met with a ton of resistance. /Film's own Marshall Shaffer called the film "an incoherent grab-bag of visual metaphors delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer" in his 3-out-of-10 review. While the critical community has been generally averse to the latest film by two-time Best Director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the film has found many supporters within the filmmaking community. Directors like Lulu Wang and Barry Jenkins have expressed their great admiration for Iñárritu's surreal auto-fiction epic. The latest supporter of the film is one of the director's old pals and a fellow Best Director winner, Guillermo del Toro.

The co-director of "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," another film produced by Netflix this year, recently moderated a Q&A for "Bardo" with Iñárritu at the Academy Museum and said of the picture [via IndieWire], "The movie is undeniably one of the most powerful things I've seen in terms of cinema, pure cinema." That's a hell of a statement to make, and it doesn't sound like it comes from a place of wanting to butter up his friend.

I wouldn't go nearly as far as del Toro in how I feel about "Bardo," but I did find myself quite engrossed in the images Iñárritu put on the screen. I agree with Marshall about their subtlety, but for me, that is not necessarily a bug in a film that is operating so boldly and brashly as "Bardo." Film is, after all, primarily a visual medium, and in terms of composition, lighting, color, and camera movement, I understand why del Toro would speak so highly of the picture.

Plot isn't everything

While I understand some being turned off by the perceived self-indulgence of "Bardo," I don't understand those who resist the film because they can't grasp what is going on. Abstraction, symbolism, and surrealism are not new concepts in filmmaking, and on the spectrum of hard-to-decipher stories, "Bardo" is fairly straightforward. It just tells the story of a documentary filmmaker and journalist (Daniel Giménez Cacho) struggling with personal and professional imposter syndrome through an ethereal and dreamlike lens. 

It seems that Guillermo del Toro has similar feelings about this, saying at the Q&A:

"To anyone that is confused about the plot and what it is about, my condolences. The fact is the movie's called 'Bardo,' which means limbo, and it starts with a guy that tries to fly but the path weighs him down, and ends with him finally flying, and they don't f***ing get it? I'm amazed."

Both in story and theme, "Bardo" is fairly simple. Now, for some people, the film's simplicity is part of the problem, thinking that Alejandro G. Iñárritu's massive canvas and implementations of abstraction aren't justified by what the film is about. On some level, I agree with that. However, my appreciation for "Bardo" goes beyond what the film is about. Plot is only part of what makes cinema the special art form that it is. Sometimes, the pleasure comes purely from aesthetics and the work that went into crafting it.

The craft is the substance

So much of film discourse these days surrounds the "what" of a picture. What is this film about, and what is it saying, politically and personally? But the thing about film — or any medium of artistic expression — is that the craft of it is just as important. I cannot tell you how sick I am of seeing countless films every year unwilling to take any chances in creating vibrant images that will linger in the mind. I don't even mean the intricate Steadicam long takes or warping of environments that "Bardo" implements. I just mean an image that is well-lit and uniquely composed, where the frame itself stands as something interesting beyond delivering a story beat. 

At the Q&A, Guillermo del Toro likened this to painting and how the picture itself barely scratches the surface of its beauty:

"Seeing a Van Gogh and asking for an opinion, and the opinion is, 'Well, it's about some flowers in a pot.' The flowers are OK, the pot is nice, but nobody talks about the brushstrokes, the colors, the thickness of the paint, the color palette. It's astounding to me."

When I hear someone say, "Yeah, it looked good, but ...," I want to stop them right there because film is a visual medium. How it looks couldn't be more important. The same goes for how it sounds. It's okay if you don't like the movie as a whole, but completely brushing aside the things that are inventive and beautiful because they aren't what the film is "about" takes away so much of the joy of what cinema can be. Alejandro G. Iñárritu tapped into that part of my brain to great effect with "Bardo," and I hope more people join me in appreciating the painting for the brush strokes.