In 2000, as I finished my postgraduate teaching degree, I watched Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Mexico City film, Amores Perros in a Manchester movie theatre and knew straight away where I wanted to teach.
Iñárritu’s Mexico is rife with inequality, banal celebrity culture, violence and myth. It is also a place of centuries old artistic history, playful humour and one of the warmest, most creative societies one might hope to inhabit.
It is unlikely that the well-known Colombian author, Gabriel García Márquez chose Mexico City as his place of exile by accident. A founding father of what we now call Magical Realism, Márquez spent the last years of his life in the monster metropolis known as DF, the capital of Mexico, a city that itself seems to blend the keenly visceral and utterly surreal.
When I moved there in 2001, it was not unusual, in the downtown district of Coyoacan, to see dogs strolling along the thoroughfare wearing brightly coloured t-shirts. For the taxi driver’s hanging i.d card to show the photograph of someone else entirely. And there were days when the city’s pollution created such thick, yellow smog that it was hard to tell what was close by or distant – real or imagined. Sometimes, you would leave the house to a shower of floating ash from the sky that peppered car windscreens and bewildered visitors, as the local volcano, Popocatepetl, emitted its debris for miles.
One morning, at the school where I worked, when I was covering an absent teacher’s Drama class, nervous about teaching the unfamiliar, I told the students not to worry about their acting skills, I wasn’t expecting them to be the next Gael García Bernal (the star of Iñárritu’s film, Amores Perros,).
‘But Miss!’ one student called out with his hand up. ‘Gael is my brother!’
Few filmmakers are clearer in their depiction of the city’s soup of scent and colour than Mexico’s most prominent film director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
The opening of his most recent film, Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths depicts the shadow of a walker striding along desert scrubland then taking off into the air. Like a lucid dreamer, the figure lifts upward apparently at will, then lands and leaps again. And it is this twist on the possible – a sense of unexpected corners being turned – that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The photography in Bardo is astonishing. There are set pieces such as the Niños Héroes‘ (child heroes) defence against the US invasion three centuries ago – with their candy coloured outfits and slapstick moves – that evoke some of Wes Anderson’s cartoonish spoofs on excessive formality.
But Bardo is a furious film, one that takes to task the United States’ role in Mexico’s history, by reformulating the usually accepted version of events. In one of the opening scenes, we learn that a major American corporation has bought part of Northern Mexico. And so the deck of North American ‘interests’ in Mexico is reshuffled. The story riffs and bends what is real, and we hear this delight in experimentation through the words of the main character Silverio, on his return to Mexico City,:
‘We should never take seriously a person who does not know how to play.’
Later, as Silverio prepares to receive an award for outstanding journalism in the Americas, the film leads us in and out of his consciousness through slips into fantasy and mundane interactions with his family and colleagues.
It is hard to tell what is dream and what is play, where imagination ends and to where Silverio’s consciousness will take him next. As he tucks his son into bed, his son asks how he knows he isn’t dreaming to which Silverio replies:
‘You can’t dream in a dream.’
The two years I spent in Mexico City often felt like a dream – even as I was living there. After spending a Saturday with friends outside the capital, in Xochimilco – on one of the canal barges decked in bright colours with fanciful names, where we were serenaded by broad hat-wearing charros singing Latin American classics – I wrote to my mother who told me my grandparents had been married there – in Xochimilco, Mexico State. My grandfather whose favourite poem ends with the lines..:
‘….que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.‘*
All of life is a dream and dreams themselves are but dreams.
As in Amores Perros, Iñárritu asks big questions of his characters and society. His film, Bardo, might be read as a type of meditation on success . What is the price – whether journalist or anchor on a populist TV show – of leading in a certain field? What is left behind?
Bardo is a film that is angry about the usual themes in Mexico: corruption, the entitlement of the United States’ foreign policy, economic migrants and their plight, as well as the banality of the Mexican media but it is also a love story to the country.
There is much to delight in a place where people know how to laugh at their situation and – out of necessity – laugh often, dark, and hard. A part of the world where the richness of the culture hinges not on capitalism but on centuries old community and tradition – manifested in its art and food, its music, stories and humour.
In Bardo, Iñárritu is furious and celebratory in the language he excels at – the code of the surreal – and his film is as captivating as a dream.
*From the poem, La vida es sueño, by the Spanish poet Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is out now (January 2023) on Netflix.
Mexican Author, Laura Esquivel’s 1992 novel, Like Water For Chocolate (also a film) might appeal to fans of the magical realist mayhem in Bardo.
(Listen To Literary Friction‘s most recent (podcast) minisode (January 2023) on Feasting for a beautiful description of Esquivel’s sparkling novel and its surrealist elements, as well as other literary gems).
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