Two thousand six was a breakthrough year for Los Tres Amigos: Alejandro González Iñárritu (who now prefers to sign his films as “Alejandro G. Iñárritu”—more of that in a second), Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro. Each released films that were considered groundbreaking and the best in their careers up to that point: Babel, Children of Men, and Pan’s Labyrinth/El laberinto del fauno, respectively.
Babel earned seven Academy Awards although it won only one for Best Music; Children of Men earned three Oscar nominations and won none. Pan’s Labyrinth won three of its six nominations, all on such technical aspects as make-up and cinematography.
It would take Iñárritu, Cuarón and del Toro more than a decade to win an Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture for films produced in English and for Hollywood studios.
They were not bad films, mind you. Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014) and Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) were ambitious in scale and ideas—the former an exploration of the old paradigm of art versus commerce through the lens of an actor who wants to distance himself from his most famous, franchise-driven role, the latter a galactic exploration of motherhood and survival that was both visceral and mind-blowing. Del Toro finally won his Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017), a dark, romantic 1950s version of Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon, where the Cold War, fanaticism, and even homophobia become obstacles for the unlikely romance between a mute cleaning lady and the strange aquatic being held prisoner by the government facility where she works.
Babel marked the end of the rather contentious relationship between Iñárritu and novelist and filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga, and Pan’s Labyrinth was del Toro’s last Spanish-language film. Between directing Gravity and Roma—his next film as a director and his third-best film after Y tu mamá también and Children of Men—Cuarón has enjoyed a far more prolific career as a film and television producer.
Not that Guillermo has been taking it easy. He’s co-written four novels—three of which, The Strain trilogy, were turned into a TV series for FX, which he produced—has produced over 48 films and directed nine films as well as an animated series for Netflix and video games.
And even though it takes him a good two-to-four years to complete his projects from beginning to end, Iñárritu’s films following Babel—Biutiful (2010), the aforementioned Birdman,nand The Revenant (2015)—have each been more ambitious in scale and ideas than its predecessor.
And so here we are, winter of 2022, with dos de los tres amigos releasing two very personal films theatrically and on Netflix: Iñárritu’s Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths/Bardo, falsa crónica de unas cuantas verdades and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. (Cuarón is currently directing and writing the series Disclaimer for Apple TV+ starring Cate Blanchett, Leslie Manville, Kevin Kline, and Sasha Baron Cohen.)
Bardo and Pinocchio are currently playing in select theaters (check your local listings), with Pinocchio streaming on Netflix December 9 and Bardo December 16. Both will likely be on my top 10 list this year.
Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths
I’ve always felt that most U.S. and European critics, and some Latin American ones, have a hard-on for Iñárritu, all lining up to see who’s the first to knock him down from his pedestal. El tocayo hasn’t helped matters either. From replacing González with “G.” to his larger-than-life pronunciations about his films, he can come off a bit arrogant, too full of himself.
So, as soon as the original three-hour version of Bardo premiered at the Venice Film Festival, critics came out swinging and proclaimed it an “incoherent grab-bag of visual metaphors delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer” (Slash) and “another magnum opus that’s eager to suffocate you with the same air of significance that Iñárritu has sewn into his previous work” (IndieWire). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The reaction has been no less virulent since the film premiered theatrically two weeks ago. Only one critic in the maelstrom of visceral reactions out of Venice provided the right insight to understand and appreciate Iñárritu’s accomplishment: Mexican film critic Carlos Aguilar who, in his review for The Wrap, wrote that “the film is an attempt at making sense of a place and a people that no longer exist as the creator remembers them, or that perhaps he never fully knew, but whose essence remains unchanged.”
Go read it. It’s a brilliant piece.
But so what if Bardo is self-referential and an exercise in ego? Aren’t all autobiographies an exercise in ego and self-referentiality—and also one of selective memory?
Isn’t Steven Speilberg’s new film The Fabelmans self-referential in his personal exploration of family life and his love for filmmaking? One could argue that there is some self-aggrandizing involved in those scenes where we see the young Spielberg-facsimile directing his own movies as a kid and a teenager.
How about Cuarón’s Roma?
Hell, even Federico Fellini’s Amarcord and 8½ are self-referential. Bardo is, after all, Iñárritu’s own 8½ sprinkled with nods to Buñuel, Jodorowsky, and even Terry Gilliam.
To understand what Iñárritu is trying to do with Bardo, you must first understand the double meaning of that word. First, there is the actual word, bardo, which in English means “bard”—in other words, the storyteller who went from town to town telling the stories, in verse, of the most recent happenings in his town.
The bard in that way was the first reporter in the history of mankind, not unlike Bardo’s protagonist Silverio Gama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a former Mexico City reporter turned documentary filmmaker who now calls L.A. his home (or is it?).
But, in Buddhism, bardo refers to that transitional state between death and rebirth, a sort of limbo if you will. And in its fusion of the real and the surreal, of fact and fiction, of Silverio’s films and his own existential crisis, Iñárritu evokes, from the first and final shots of a man’s shadow on a desert floor as his body attempts to take flight, that disorienting sense of not knowing where or who you are.
With his wild hair, beard, and posture, Silverio is pretty much Iñárritu’s avatar. In the same way that Bardo represents a return to his native Mexico for Iñárritu, Silverio travels back to his native city to reconnect with it and receive a prestigious journalism award. That’s the plot in a nutshell around which Iñárritu builds a series of dreamlike tableaus where Silverio discusses with his son their status as immigrants, where he imagines himself unable to respond to the questions of a popular TV personality as he uses those questions to viciously attack Silverio, where he attends a party in his honor and dances and prances to the beat of Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe songs performed by a local band to later verbally attack that aforementioned personality, and where, after wandering into a deserted Mexico City late at night and seeing those who were walking by suddenly drop dead on the ground, he runs into a pyramid of dead Indigenous bodies in the middle of El Zócalo, at the top of which sits a triumphant Hernán Cortés with whom Silverio strikes a conversation after climbing the pyramid. Not to mention the opening shot of his wife Lucía giving birth to a son who decides to get back into her womb because “the world is fucked up,” in the words of one of the doctors (a child who we later learn died at birth and whose spirit haunts Silverio throughout the film). In the background, we hear newscasts reporting Amazon’s imminent purchase of Baja California.
Iñárritu cut about 20 minutes of the film after its premieres at Venice and Telluride, tightening several scenes. He hadn’t yet seen it with the public, and reactions from both festivals allowed him to streamline the film more.
Shot in widescreen 65mm, Bardo is pure cinema. Every single shot, every single scene, is full of beauty and wonder, full of surreal moments and flights of fancy, a film that is both muscular in its filmmaking and dreamlike. It is a film made by a man who is coming to terms with himself, his artistry, his status as an immigrant, and his own age.
Bardo is also incredibly funny. The sights and sounds Silverio runs into in the TV studio as he makes his way to the set of Supongamos, where he will be grilled by his rival, are outrageously carnivalesque. Iñárritu is evidently taking a piss on the state of Mexican television—plus its counterpart in the United States. It is also a very Mexican film in its use of historical, social, and geographical references.
All of the above make Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths one of the best Latin American films I’ve seen this year.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
You want to know how personal Carlo Collodi’s classic fairy tale The Adventures of Pinocchio is for that Mexican master of the weird and the monstrous, Guillermo del Toro? It is so personal that it took him 10 years to bring it to the big screen. So personal that, in fact, it carries his name on the title. So personal that you could consider it the third film in a trilogy that started with The Devil’s Backbone/El espinazo del diablo and continued with Pan’s Labyrinth. So personal that it is his best film since Pan’s Labyrinth.
Look, I am a big del Toro fan but, at the same time, I do feel that even though he poured his heart into every single project bearing his name after Pan’s Labyrinth, they haven’t quite reached the high that the 2006 film reached. Hellboy: The Golden Army (2008) delivered twice the fun as the original Hellboy did, and the black-and-white version of his previous film, Nightmare Alley (2021), is a far better exploration of the dark side of humanity than the color version, where the production design overwhelmed the film’s themes and grit.
Pacific Rim (2013) may have been fun, but the script was sillier and more groan-inducing in its dialogue than a comic book from the 1950s. And Crimson Peak (2015)? See my comment above regarding Nightmare Alley’s version in color.
His Academy Award-winning The Shape of Water is the closest he came to reaching those highs—that is, until his stop-motion animation version of Pinocchio.
It’s a film that feels artisanal, handcrafted, delicate. Each frame is full of heart and love and sadness and empathy and tragedy. But, most important, it is far more loyal to the original story’s fairy tale roots, and the darkness that comes with every single tale, than any other version that preceded it, including Disney’s sanitized 1939 animated feature and this year’s rather unnecessary and godforsakenly bad live-action remake directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The shadow of fascism looms large in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, just as it did in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. The setting is a small town in Italy during the rule of Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Geppetto, a humble woodcarver (voiced by David Bradley), leads an almost idyllic life with his 10-year-old son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann) during the final days of World War II, until an air raid destroys the local church where Geppetto was carving a gigantic wooden statue of Christ crucified, killing his son.
Years pass, and the old man has isolated himself from the community, giving up his craft, drinking himself to sleep, and visiting his son’s tomb…
Then, on an appropriately dark and stormy night, Geppetto defies the gods and chops a nearby tree where one Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) has made his home, taking the trunk back to his workshop, cricket and all. And out of that trunk he carves a wooden boy.
In the traditional Disneyfication of the tale, Geppetto may have gone to bed in his pajamas. Here, he falls drunkenly down the stairs and is knocked unconscious. And del Toro’s fairy godmother is no beautiful blonde lady in a blue nightgown and wings, but a blue creature, a wood sprite with eyes on her wings voiced by Tilda Swinton.
Taking pity on the old man, she breathes life into the wooden boy. His awakening is one of the movie’s many funny moments, as Pinocchio (also voiced by Gregory Mann) runs around the house, wrecking everything as he excitedly discovers new feelings and sensations. There is no promise from the wood sprite that he will eventually be turned into a boy, nor is Geppetto pleased to see him. In fact, he rejects him. He is not his dead boy Carlo.
That’s the spark that sets Pinocchio off on a series of adventures and misadventures from which he may or may not learn a lesson or two. Del Toro and co-scriptwriter Patrick McHale are faithful to the picaresque spirit of the original novel. For this is what del Toro’s Pinocchio, co-directed by stop-motion animation artist Mark Gustafson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), is after all: a picaresque, in which our hero gets into trouble over and over and is saved by his own naïveté and desire to be accepted as he is.
The wooden boy soon attracts the attention of the local fascist official (voiced by Ron Perlman), who at first objects to his rambunctiousness but then discovers that Pinocchio’s immortality may be of benefit to Mussolini’s armed forces. So he is sent to military school to undergo training alongside the official’s son, where both strike up a friendship and become allies. Then there’s Count Volpe (voiced by Cristoph Waltz), who sees in this talking wireless puppet the solution to bringing an end to his carnival’s misfortunes and bamboozles Pinocchio into joining his flailing puppet show. Pinocchio becomes the star of the big top, much to the chagrin of much-abused monkey and hench-animal Spazzatura—whose grunts and sounds and occasional vocal turns are delightfully voiced by Cate Blanchett.
Pinocchio encounters death so many times that he is constantly revived by the wood sprite’s sister (also voiced by Swinton), who teaches him a new lesson with each visit to the underworld—the four rabbit caretakers playing poker in this world are another of the many dark delights this film offers.
Oh, yeah, and Pinocchio’s nose does grow long when he lies, but not in a straight line—an acknowledgment that lies, much like truth, can also take one too many thorny paths.
Partially shot in del Toro’s own Centro Internacional de Animación, a.k.a. Tío Chucho, in Guadalajara, with dozens of local animation artists taking part in all aspects of the project, from costumes to rigging and post-production, and o-produced by The Jim Henson Company and animation studios Shadow Machine, the film possesses a tactile, lived-in feel. Each character’s movements, their facial expressions, even their gestures, are incredibly lifelike even as the animation retains some of the herky-jerky movement characteristic of stop-motion. The film is fluid, dynamic.
And the voice work is extraordinary. Unlike most Pixar or even Dreamwork films, where audiences end up playing the “guess that voice” game and the celebrity behind it ends up overwhelming the character he or she is playing, here the actors go beyond voicing their characters—they become the characters. David Bradley, the most recognizable voice in the group—for those who have followed him in such films as the Harry Potter series, his work for Edgar Wright, and his turn as Abraham Setrakian in The Strain TV series—is the star here, delivering pathos and heart to a man who learns how to love again. It’s one of the most powerful vocal performances for an animated film this year.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio returns the fairy tale to its proper dark place. A breakthrough for stop-motion animation, the film will haunt and delight parents and their children, as well as provoke many conversations around empathy and humanity.
Featured image: Pinocchio, center, voiced by Gregory Mann in ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ (Netflix)