Indeed, the opening image of “Bardo” suggests that Iñárritu has created “Birdman 2.0,” as a man, seen only as his shadow, repeatedly takes flight over a sere desert landscape. That game of cosmic leapfrog gives way to a birth scene in a hospital, when the infant coming into the world decides he’d rather stay in his mother’s womb. The next 2½ hours unfold as a series of random but thematically connected moments from Silverio’s life, in which he meditates on love, loss, Mexican national identity and his own inadequacies in a world governed by dream logic and a fetishistic attraction to stunning imagery for its own sake.
Clearly inspired by Federico Fellini’s “8½” and its successors (especially “All That Jazz”), Iñárritu creates a pageant of nonlinear but indelible scenes, each of them meticulously conceived and gorgeously photographed by Darius Khondji. Silverio debates the Mexican-American War with the U.S. ambassador while a crisp marching band plays in perfect formation outside, its military precision ending in a re-creation of a student massacre in 1968. Silverio visits an infotainment talk show, walking through a bevy of scantily clad dancers — Iñárritu isn’t above having his cheesecake and eating it, too — where he is supposed to talk about his last film, “False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.” Then he’s at home, flirting with his wife (Griselda Siciliani), entertaining his most haunting memories and regrets, and, eventually, arguing with his teenage son Lorenzo (Íker Sánchez Solano) about hypocrisy and Mexican romanticism, while the sunny dining room steadily darkens as a rainstorm begins outside. It all means something profound, but what, exactly?
Since his breaking out in 2000 with “Amores Perros,” Iñárritu has established himself as a technical master, so it should come as no surprise that these scenes and many others are executed with bravura confidence and visual dynamism. But the look-at-me tricks and recurring motifs can’t make up for a narrative that, once it comes into focus, is akin to listening to someone repeat their dreams in stultifying detail. The title of “Bardo” indicates the state between life and death, the threshold of here-but-not-hereness that Silverio seems to be hovering in. The question is whether he’s hurtling toward the afterlife or reaching up for one more bite at the apple. That literal life-or-death question becomes mired in cliched encounters with figures from Silverio’s past, as well as vaguely self-congratulatory natterings about the wages of wealth, ambition, artistic respect and public acclaim.
This is, after all, a film in which the protagonist can utter lines like “Success has been my biggest failure” and expect to be taken seriously — just before another character describes life as merely “a brief series of senseless events.” Well, okay. “Bardo” seems to be Iñárritu’s deeply personal — if hermetic — attempt to make sense of the conflicting and unresolved impulses that have animated his life and art over the past two decades, during which he’s gone from promising emerging filmmaker to Oscar-winning superstar. In its most promising moments, the film suggests a healthy amount of self-doubt; at its most grandiose, it looks like someone getting high on his own supply. That might be altogether appropriate for a movie that, regardless of where it lands, insists on occupying a liminal space: between past and present, breathtaking and banal, stupid and clever. It’s all of that and none of that, which is precisely as “Bardo” should be.
R. In area theaters; available Dec. 16 on Netflix. Contains strong language throughout, strong sexual elements and graphic nudity. In Spanish and some English with subtitles. 159 minutes.