Greetings again from the darkness. Many filmmakers mine their own lives for projects, making their work personal, revealing, and sometimes invasive. It’s easy to label these works as narcissistic, and by definition, that would be accurate. However, some of the finest films from our most interesting writer-directors fall into the autobiographical (or semi-autobiographical) category. Examples include Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS, and Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES. This time it’s Oscar winner Alejandro Inarritu looking inward. Inarritu won his Oscars for THE REVENANT (2015), and his previous nominations include BIRDMAN (2014) and BABEL (2006), and those are in addition to his other standouts: BIUTIFUL (2010), 21 GRAMS (2003), and AMORES PERROS (2000). He’s joined on this project by his BIUTIFUL and BIRDMAN co-writer, Nicolas Giacobone.
The film begins with a Terrence Malick-like dream sequence of a man leaping and flying through the desert as his shadow follows below. Next, we see a woman giving birth in a hospital as her husband lends support. Only this time, the mother and doctor agree that the baby didn’t want to come out, so they put him “back in.” The father is Silverio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho, (BAD EDUCATION 2004, CRONOS 1993), and it’s quite obvious he is representing our real-life director, Mr. Inarritu. A few years later we are informed that Silverio, a respected journalist and documentarian, has become the first Mexican selected for a prestigious award in the United States.
Griselda Siciliani plays Lucia, Silverio’s wife, and she is integral to his life, yet we witness much of his life outside of their relationship. The film struck me as a metaphysical exercise as an artist turns his lens into selfie mode. It seems as though Inarritu is coming to grips … and sharing his philosophy with us … that emotions drive the reality of our truth. Stated another way, truth is an illusion of emotion. Our emotion skews how we view everything. Additionally, he examines (his own) midlife crisis, and the corresponding insecurities, dreams, fantasies, and doubts. And since much of this occurs in his native Mexico, spiritual and cultural aspects enter into what we see, as does the uncertainty of time as an element.
Inarritu and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture some startling imagery, including a sequence on the dance floor, a segment where bodies drop in the street, and a bag of Axolotls being held on the train. Much of the film has a surreal look and feel, but then there are moments that are more emotionally grounded – like the terrific rooftop exchange between Silverio and his friend Luis (Francisco Rubio). In contrast to that heartfelt conversation, there are the moments when Silverio seems to be heard by others without his speaking. “Move your mouth when you speak”, he is told … yet, his thoughts are conveyed.
The use of sound is masterful, and is crucial to numerous scenes. A second watch will allow me to more fully appreciate this aspect. However, at two hours and thirty-nine minutes, Inarritu likely had many thoughts and ideas, and we find ourselves wishing things were a bit tighter on the editing side. Still, while the film may be self-indulgent and ego-driven, it’s also spectacular and stunning filmmaking. There are some slyly comedic touches, and the best may when this Netflix production doesn’t shy away from taking a jab at its competitor, Amazon.