The Wonder (2022)

Sebastián Lelio | 1hr 43min

The false miracle which the impoverished O’Donnell family devote their entire lives to in The Wonder makes for a dangerous illusion. It would be comforting for many to imagine that God has blessed their young 11-year-old girl, Anna, with the ability to survive without food, especially given the recent trauma of the Great Famine which saw millions starve across Ireland. There are deeper wounds than that haunting the O’Donnells though, too troubling for them to address head-on without some religious justification. Belief is a prison for young Anna – or is it freedom, liberating her from the scars of abuse? Perspective is key to understanding the subjective nature of these delicate fantasies, suggests director Sebastián Lelio, whose direction takes a self-reflexive step back from this tale of desperate faith to examine it as an introspective metanarrative.

His Brechtian intentions are clear right too from the very first shot, where the film’s own soundstage stands with it sets all built, ready for shooting. As the camera pans across the scene, a narrator guides us in, encouraging a suspension of disbelief which itself will soon come under our own scrutiny.

“The people you are about to meet, the characters, believe in their stories with complete devotion. We are nothing without stories. And so we invite you to believe in this one.”

It’s a remarkably smooth tracking shot which joins these two settings, bridging the gap between reality and fiction as represented by the soundstage and the ship set.

It is a bold, postmodern swing from Lelio, and one that might rely a little too much on heavy-handed exposition in these opening lines. Very gradually, his camera drifts from the studio into a ship set where Florence Pugh’s English nurse, Lib, is en route to her station in rural Ireland, tasked with observing and reporting on young Anna’s miraculous fast. From this point on, Lelio weaves in his fourth wall breaks far more delicately, immersing us into his painstakingly accurate period detail so that we may forget the artifice that lies just outside the camera’s view.

The subsequent fourth wall breaks after the opening are subtler. The voiceover returns as Kitty is revealed to be the narrator, and later on Anna looks directly at the camera without speaking. All part of Lelio’s grand formal experiment.

Once we are fully absorbed into this historical setting, it quickly becomes apparent just how marvellous an achievement The Wonder is in its rusticated production design, with the green paint peeling off walls and rusticated décor speaking to the desperation of the era. Just as gorgeous are the beguiling tracking shots which roll through these candlelit interiors, and the Irish landscapes which consume the O’Donnell’s family cottage in a sea of rolling green hills and grey skies. It certainly helps having cinematographer Ari Wegner onboard too with her penchant for shooting natural light, which she only recently proved in The Power of the Dog. As much as this is a visually mesmerising experience though, The Wonder is also an eloquent deconstruction of its own fictitiousness, intermittently ripping us from the film’s verisimilitude to remind us of the fabricated psychodrama we have invested in.

Rusticated period decor with peeling green paint and firelit interiors – integral to our immersion in this world.
Ari Wegner’s camera movement through Irish landscapes amasses great beauty in these exteriors.

During Lib’s stay with the O’Donnells she encounters William, another sceptic who has been drawn to this miracle and is now looking to expose it in the media. The two find common ground, both having lost family in tragic circumstances and now believing they are witnessing Anna’s own death through the neglect of her own parents. It his gift to the young girl which has the greatest metaphorical significance in this tale though – an optical illusion toy which, when spun, blends a picture of a bird and a cage together to form a single image. So then, is the bird trapped or free? “That’s for you to decide. Inside. Outside,” William answers her.

Lelio smoothly ties this visual conceit into his long dissolves, superimposing Anna’s slumber over Lib’s journey across a field in one glorious composition, but even more powerfully we find Pugh’s own face trapped inside that cage as the toy continues to spin. She may not be confined to any faith in the same way as Anna or her family, but the way she ritualistically plays with the tiny boots of her deceased baby, it appears that she is enslaved to a fantasy of a different kind.

Pugh framed like the bird in the cage through this long dissolve – a great visual conceit and metaphor tied together.
A perfect graphic match cut, with the contours of Anna’s sleeping body lining up with the shape of the mountains.

And so too are we, Lelio reminds us, with the repeated mantra of “In. Out. In. Out,” reflecting our own cyclical shift in and out of this immersion. To simultaneously believe in a comforting lie and to understand its separation from reality is the balance that must be struck, and as Anna keeps growing sicker, the O’Donnells only dig deeper into their self-delusion, praying that she will at least be granted a sacred death.

Rebirth and baptism captured in this pair of nicely framed close-ups. This is a feather in the cap for Pugh after her magnificent breakthrough year in 2019.

The only way to find healing from the prison of old beliefs is to let them die and be reborn as new ones, and therein lies the only true salvation for those in The Wonder haunted by past traumas. These illusions need not be destructive, but as we see in Lib’s case, they can offer new opportunities for self-reflection and growth. Once again, Lelio turns that back on us with his bookended return to the film’s own soundstage. “In. Out. In. Out,” chants our narrator – quite curiously Anna’s own sister – asking us both to believe in and observe these events from afar. It is an unexpectedly provocative period drama he constructs here, purposefully dismantling its own form to examine the purpose it holds as a piece of metafiction, but it is through such profound introspection that he paradoxically draws us even deeper into its richly designed world of believers and sceptics.

The Wonder is currently streaming on Netflix.

Copenhagen Cowboy (2023)

Nicolas Winding Refn | 6 episodes (47 – 56 minutes)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s enigmatic odyssey through Copenhagen’s criminal underworld of sex traffickers, drug lords, and vampires is not the sort of Netflix series that flies by with propulsive momentum. It demands patience, a stomach for the grotesque, and a certain willingness to fall under its violent, neon-soaked trance, effectively playing to the same niche portion of viewers who could abide the icy detachment of Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon. Copenhagen Cowboy feels much more epic in scope than either of those films though, marking Refn’s second foray into television following 2019’s Too Old to Die Young, and his first in his native Danish language since 2005’s Pusher 3. Elements of the supernatural have certainly crept into his slow-burn thrillers before, but by centring the mysteriously superpowered Miu in his nocturnal vision of Denmark’s capital city, this Gothic neo-noir western effectively marks his most surreal venture into the paranormal yet.

The full extent of Miu’s skillset only really comes through gradual revelations though. Of this six-episode series, episode 1 may be the weakest overall, taking its time to set her up as a ‘lucky charm’ hired out by wealthy clientele. The first person we meet seeking this good fortune is Rosella, the middle-aged matriarch of a peculiar crime family, who wishes to fall pregnant with Miu’s assistance. At a house party, the androgynous young woman is passed around, stroked, and has snippets of her hair cut off by guests, effectively being objectified in a similar manner as the undocumented immigrants being pimped out from Rosella’s basement. The escape of one of these women, Cimona, in the final minutes of this episode sets in motion one of the series’ main plot threads, which sends her into the murderous hands of the blond, baby-faced Nicklas.

Parts of the first episode feel reminiscent of The Neon Demon with scenes in neon-lit change rooms and beautiful, stoic women.
Miu’s first instance of payback ends episode 2 – a glorious, blazing set piece.

From here, Refn continues to develop Copenhagen Cowboy as a psychedelic battle between abusive patriarchal institutions and the women they exploit. In episode 2 we meet Mother Hulda, the owner of a Chinese restaurant who we later learn has had her daughter taken by local gangster Mr Chiang. Though Refn’s dialogue is impassive and his actors’ facial expressions are stoic to the point of being inhuman, the strongest connection between any two characters may be the one here between Hulda and Miu, who sets out on a mission to get her daughter back. Just as she can bless people, so too can she apparently bring bad luck to those who deserve it, and as a skilled martial artist and clairvoyant, she poses a threat formidable enough to take down one major villain in a ludicrously anticlimactic fight.

For all the slow pacing and long takes, Refn remains a very active editor, using long dissolves over Miu’s first direct interaction with Nicklas.

In essence, Miu is an avenging angel of sorts, even framed in one key shot preceding a significant showdown with a ring light around her head like a halo, and in another with eagle wings stretching out behind her. She keeps any strong emotions she might possess locked up under the blue tracksuit that she wears like armour, its stiff turtleneck reaching all the way up to her chin, and simply through her penetrating gaze she can bring Siberian gangsters crumbling to the floor, wracked with fear and regret.

“Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m just looking at you.”

Inspired framing of the eagle wings and halo behind Miu’s head, setting her up as an avenging angel.

With what feels like several seconds of pause between each line of dialogue, Refn tunes us into the constant, synthesised ambience that fills the silences, thrumming and reverberating to the distorted rhythms crafted by Cliff Martinez and his team of composers. As is often the case with his and Refn’s collaborations, their work is a perfect formal match, soaking us in the ambience of electronic drones and vibrant neon lights that illuminate virtually every shady establishment in Copenhagen. These vivid fluorescent hues are often shaped through practical light sources built into Refn’s sets and making for some striking visual clashes, with Mother Hulda’s Chinese restaurant of red lanterns precisely arranged along green and blue curtains being a standout. As we come to understand Miu’s transcendent nature in more detail via a dream sequence as well, it almost appears as though these lights are radiantly pouring off her own skin and clothing, bathing her in an otherworldly glow colour against an entirely black background.

For a television series, this is loaded with these dead gorgeous colour compositions, laying out these red lanterns in the Chinese restaurant.
Psychedelic dream sequences are everywhere, here emitting light from Miu’s body as her origins are revealed.
Like every Refn film since Drive, this is soaked in his characteristic neon lighting – dogged commitment to an aesthetic.

Refn’s introduction to episode 5 also uses these vibrant contrasts to set up its gang war conceit particularly well, as he horizontally splits the screen and tracks his camera in opposite directions to examine both sides of the conflict – the blue half arranged in a tableau depicting the Last Supper, and the red posing on motorcycles. It is in those moments where rich displays of mise-en-scene and glacial camera movements combine that we feel fully immersed in his eerie environments, whether we are pointedly inching forward on character close-ups or floating around the golden apartment office of Miu’s old associate, Miroslav. Easily the most formally robust choice here though are Refn’s camera pans, frequently positioning us as distant, passive observers of Denmark’s urban underbelly.

A superb opening to episode 5 which focuses on a gang war, with the split screen, camera pans, and conflicting colour palettes.
Manipulating the golden light in Miroslav’s apartment office to throw these shapes across the ceiling. The use of darkness and lamps is particularly reminiscent of Gordon Willis’ photography in The Godfather.

The other major motif weaved through Copenhagen Cowboy’s scenes of animalistic greed and brutality are the pigs. Rosella’s passive husband, Sven, barely utters a word besides the bestial snorts and squeals he emits when beaten by her brother, Andre. It is revealed in episode 3 that Mr Chiang disposes of bodies by having them fed to Mother Hulda’s swine. In a simple yet deft cut, Refn moves from this scene to Nicklas playing with his own pet pigs, which we also met in the series’ very first scene. These men are the lowest of humanity propping themselves up as the greatest through their wealth and influence, though in such direct comparisons Refn exposes them as creatures of thoughtless instinct, constantly seeking to fulfil their most base desires.

Refn’s world is unforgiving and twisted, and his pig motif is part of that, emphasising the worst of humanity as thoughtless animals.
Refn stages tableaux with stillness and absolute attention to detail, leaving his camera as the only moving part of the scene.

Of these three men, it is Nicklas who is the most purely bone-chilling as an antagonist, possessing vampiric qualities that drive his bloodlust and make an enemy out of Miu. It is often in his house where Refn detaches from his neon aesthetic and turns to brighter, natural light, even offering a pastel, floral wallpaper backdrop to a Norman Bates-like monologue. He keeps a coffin in his basement too, and though one might initially presume that he sleeps in it, beneath its lid lie darker secrets which rear their head in Copenhagen Cowboy’s last two episodes.

The camera zoom and floral wallpaper in this shot frames Nicklas as an eerie figure.

The forest set piece where Nicklas’ surprise finally emerges to face Miu makes for a mesmerisingly surreal finale, shedding a dreamy natural light over a field of mysterious, tracksuited allies and her own terrified face, now showing emotion for the very first time. As Refn winds the ending towards a pair of cliff-hangers though, it is hard to not feel like we are being cheated of a final punch, leaving us wishing that this series was its own self-contained project. Still, as far as television goes, Copenhagen Cowboy is an exceptional cinematic triumph, traversing the psychological terrain of its otherworldly protagonist with disquieting stoicism and formal intensity. If Refn has another season of ideas in him to continue building out this hallucinatory Danish underworld, then let it be done. There’s nothing else on TV quite like it.

Even Refn’s natural light looks otherworldly, shedding a purple hue over this finale.

Copenhagen Cowboy is currently streaming on Netflix.

See How They Run (2022)

Tom George | 1hr 38min

The closest that Wes Anderson has ever gotten to constructing a murder mystery in his pastel world of eccentric ensembles and dioramas would be The Grand Budapest Hotel, but director Tom George gives us the next best thing in the delightfully quirky See How They Run. It opens on the 100th performance of Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap on West End, and talks of adapting it into a Hollywood movie sees American director Leo Köpernick fly over to sign contracts, antagonise stakeholders, and ultimately die at the hands of a masked assailant. His post-mortem narration is keenly self-aware, criticising the trite conventions of whodunits as they play out before out before our eyes in flashbacks and character archetypes.

“You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

There’s just a single problem here – for all its playful twists and techniques, this statement rings too true in See How They Run’s extraordinarily familiar plotting, lacking the originality of Rian Johnson’s captivating Knives Out series or the narrative intricacy of Agatha Christie’s novels. The Mousetrap becomes a template of sorts for Mark Chappell’s screenplay, which directly references and splits the play’s double-twist into two separate reveals, one of which is hilariously undermined as a false lead, and the other leaving us somewhat underwhelmed. Even in this star-studded cast of suspects, few are developed well enough for us to engage with the implications of their potential guilt.

Instead, it is our two leading detectives played by Saoirse Ronan and Sam Rockwell who are the most compelling figures in See How They Run, forming a terrific comedic duo as the eager young constable and the jaded senior inspector. Their chemistry is impeccable, and their conflicting mannerisms are well-defined, leading them through misadventures which are often far more exciting than their actual investigation. With Ronan in a lead role and a smarmy Adrien Brody filling in the role of the doomed murder victim, Köpernick, George notably pulls in two of Wes Anderson’s regular collaborators to put their deadpan spin on the script’s witty dialogue, building a rhythm that pulses to the beat of the sharply-paced editing.

In fact, it is primarily in that self-conscious artifice of freeze frames, split screens, and neatly composed visuals that the film flourishes, seeing George borrow from Anderson’s stylistic repertoire. With symmetrical frames and the camera’s perpendicular angles frequently keeping us a distance from the actors, everything is set up perfectly for this meta-study of a classic genre, irreverently breaking it down into parts before assembling it again into a buddy cop mystery. There are whodunits out there which may be more sophisticated in their construction, but See How They Run still makes for a visually adventurous and hilariously fun entry into the canon.

See How They Run is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Ruben Östlund | 2hr 20min

For the staff working aboard the luxury yacht in Triangle of Sadness, there is no choice to offer anything but cheerful hospitality. For the affluent guests, a stuffy air of upper-class pretension must be upheld at all costs, no matter what the stormy ocean throws at them. For Carl, the model who gets free cruise tickets through his influencer girlfriend Yaya, that worry wrinkle which forms between his eyebrows is a blight on an otherwise handsome face, but thankfully it can be fixed with Botox. Swedish director and satirist Ruben Östlund takes the name one casting director colloquially attaches to that damning crease as the title of his film, and though his ensemble of eccentric millionaires and service workers do all they can to suppress the visible discomfort it betrays, their uncontrollable bodily fluids have other plans.

Östlund’s skewering of the ultra-wealthy comes in a year where other films such as Glass Onion and The Menu have covered similar ground, but where those respectively filtered their satire through murder mystery and horror genres, Triangle of Sadness is single-minded in its wry mockery. This is a black comedy in the vein of Luis Buñuel – perhaps not as sharp in its observations or as formally rigorous as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but still carrying on the same spirit of subversive wit, underscoring the incongruity between the world his characters believe they live in and the reality they can’t escape.

Divided into three chapters and a prologue that each take place in radically different settings, Östlund at times seems to be distracted by the sheer number of possible targets within his purview, introducing compelling characters late in the narrative and letting others disappear for periods of time without much consistency. Remarkably though, the hit-rate of his comedic vignettes is high all throughout, with his actors’ double-edged line deliveries being just as memorable as the riotously lowbrow set piece at the centre of the film.

It is the intersection of two ill-fated decisions made by Captain Thomas Smith and one deluded passenger, Vera, where this luxury cruise descend into hellish chaos. While in a drunken state, Thomas unwisely resolves to host the captain’s dinner on Thursday night when violent storms are forecast. Meanwhile, Vera’s vapid gesture of goodwill that forces a staff member to go swimming is only accepted with an anxious smile, and quickly leads to the overenthusiastic head of staff, Paula, ushering the rest of the crew down the waterslide. It is an absurd sight to see them all lining up for no real purpose, and as the cooks leave the kitchen to join them, we see the beginnings of a catastrophe about to unfold through the seafood they have left sitting in the warm air.

There is something off about the evening as it rolls around, and it isn’t just the raw fish. For virtually the entirety of these fine dining scenes, Östlund slowly rocks his set from side to side, inducing a seasickness on his audience as well as his high-flying characters who balance themselves at skewed angles. Thomas dutifully greets his guests and, like his subordinates, capitulates to their ludicrous demands (better to just assure them the non-existent sails will be cleaned than argue), while wine glasses and bottles roll along the floor. Östlund employs a few solid tracking shots through Triangle of Sadness, but perhaps his greatest comes here as we follow the silver dishes out into the dining hall, where an intermittent banging puts us on edge.

It is absurdly funny to see one woman, right after her first bout of vomiting, try to maintain her composure by washing it down with a glass of champagne. Funnier still is the drunk Russian oligarch, Dimitry, breaking into the captain’s cockpit during the confusion and mischievously announcing over the loudspeaker that the ship is sinking. Each time we are convinced that this cruise has hit rock bottom, Östlund torments his characters with another horrific development worse than the last, like a Gaspar Noé thriller veering hard into dark comedy. Even when we think it is finally over, it isn’t, and Triangle of Sadness suddenly launches into a final act which turns the power hierarchy of the service industry on its head.

How feeble Dimitry’s own capitalistic convictions must be for him to start spouting Marxist quotes the moment he is the one at the bottom of the ladder, especially when it was only the night before that he was obnoxiously battling the captain’s socialist musings with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher soundbites. So too does Abigail, the ship’s toilet manager, become a tyrannical dictator when the opportunity presents itself, choosing to domesticate the men and give special treatment to the women. Up to this point she has not played a particularly significant role, but Östlund has still been sure to underscore the disparity between Paula’s cheery, customer-facing staff above deck, and Abigail’s non-white labourers down below, thanklessly cleaning up the passengers’ vomit and overflowing toilets.

Though Carl and Yaya’s insecure relationship fades into the background through the middle of the film, their maddening disputes over money, feminism, and fidelity are eventually brought back towards its end. They are not as wealthy as their fellow holidaymakers, but in public they still confidently assert themselves as a young, attractive couple pretending they can pay for the opulence surrounding them. Despite being gluten intolerant, Yaya will snap photos with a forkful of pasta for her Instagram followers, while in the cramped backseat of a taxi Östlund frantically swings his camera between both sides of their superficial argument, as if watching a tennis match in close-up. Of all the self-conceited fools who populate Triangle of Sadness, it is not the rich, but those who pretend to be rich who most deserve our pity and scorn. It is ultimately on the lonely shores of their own vanity where these image-obsessed men and women dig their graves, falling to the natural, violent whims of a world that simply can’t be bought.

Triangle of Sadness is currently playing in theatres.

All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

Edward Berger | 2hr 23min

The entire history of war movies is filled with pacifist statements rendered through violent horror, and Edward Berger’s recent adaptation of the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front is no different in this aspect. Similar ground has certainly been covered in the 1930 film based on the same source material, though where that was a Hollywood production interpreting a specifically German experience of World War I, there is an aching, historical authenticity infused in Berger’s interpretation that speaks to his nation’s guilt and trauma. For the soldiers on the frontlines in the war’s final days, it matters very little that they are losing to the Allies, and whatever fiery patriotism they once felt for the ‘Fatherland’ is gone. All they have to do is survive long enough to see 11am on November 11. Whatever shame they face when they return home will be negligible compared to their relief of being away from the Western Front.

Before we meet any of our main characters though, Berger presages the horrors that await them with a haunting prologue tracking the uniforms that they will soon wear. His editing is patient, lingering on the deathly silence of a forest shrouded in blue mist, its tall trees reaching for the sky, and a battlefield strewn with the bodies of lifeless men. As the camera slowly levels out from an overhead shot to reveal the soul-crushing expanse of the devastation, it picks up on the movement of one German soldier crawling over the top of the trenches, heading towards his death. These opening minutes are completely void of music, until we cut to a mortifying wide shot of coffins being packed tightly together in a pit, and we are blasted with an angry, diminished triad of distorted synths. This simple motif will persist all through All Quiet on the Western Front, but it is especially as the soldiers’ uniforms are trucked off to a factory, washed, repaired, and sent to the next round of recruits that it sounds like an apocalyptic warning to Paul Bäumer and his friends.

A quiet, haunting prologue to what will be an otherwise loud and brutal 2 and a half hours, introducing us to the Western Front via some of the year’s most beautiful landscape photography.
This could be straight out of The Thin Red Line, except here there is a bleakness in the colours and overcast sky you don’t find in Malick’s work.
Mirroring the shot looking up at the trees with a shot looking down at the ground where dozens of dead soldiers lay. Slowly, the camera tracks down and then levels out with the horizon, devastatingly revealing the expanse of the carnage.

The lie fed to these young men that great glory awaits them on the battlefield can be easily traced down to a single piece of dramatic irony that Paul very nearly picks up on – the name tag of his uniform’s previous owner stitched into the fabric. That’s just a leftover from another recruit who didn’t fit the measurements, he is told, before the officer rips it off and drops it in a pile of other names that have been so thoughtlessly discarded. The disheartening implications are clear: these men are considered more expendable than even the clothes they wear.

The first time anyone notes that “this isn’t how I imagined it” comes on the very first night, when they are forced to bucket water out of the trenches just so they have somewhere to lie down. It is a minor inconvenience compared to what other adversities they are yet to suffer, but it doesn’t take long for them to recognise its triviality when the first of these men to die, Ludwig, befalls his fate a mere few hours later. The idea that one can simply ‘ease into’ these conditions is hopeless.

Fields are graded in cool blues, stripping the land of all its warmth.
Fire, smoke, and burnt-out scenery – Berger’s visual craft here is incredible.

Like The Thin Red Line before it, the bleak beauty that All Quiet on the Western Front instils in such total carnage paints out this grisly battle between the German and French as a stain on nature, lingering on frosty blue fields, withering vegetation, and landscapes ruined by the besmirchment of warfare. The flickering of bright, yellow flares up in the sky breaks this aesthetic up in one scene that feels almost spiritual in its meditative tranquillity, illuminating a desolate expanse of burnt-out trees and the silhouette of a fallen soldier tangled in a web of barbed wire, while his fellow troops gaze at the burning balls of light in awestruck wonder.

An almost spiritual interlude as flares are sent up into the sky, offering what might be one of the only warm light sources in the film.

Beyond this brief interlude though, Berger is committed to his harrowing imagery, working with a huge number of extras stretching into the distance to shoot their impending deaths like a horror film. In one scene, he lands a demoralising weight with the discovery of sixty missing German soldiers lying dead in an abandoned building, revealing that they were gassed after taking their masks off too early. Even more terrifying is the Germans’ successful assault on the French, which quickly turns against them when tanks emerge from the fog like monsters mercilessly mowing down everything in their path. As airplanes and flamethrowers join the fight, Berger adds fire and smoke to his dreary mise-en-scene, silhouetting Paul’s friend, Albert, in a disturbingly grim composition that sees him unsuccessfully beg for mercy on his knees.

This entire sequence plays out like a horror film with the tanks emerging out of the sick, yellow mist, and Albert’s hopeless surrender.
These close-ups put us in a weary headspace like that which Come and See evokes, revealing the visceral impact of war in the transformation of one young man’s face.

The sheer fluidity with which we navigate the action only adds to the visual accomplishment here as well, rolling the camera through trenches much like Stanley Kubrick did in Paths of Glory, and traversing the battlefield in long takes as we saw in 1917. The impact is visceral, refusing to let us escape from the ongoing chaos until we move into the parallel storyline of negotiations between German and Allied officials. The interior, period décor of these scenes is stunning in their soft lighting and design, noting a huge separation between those giving the orders and the ones carrying them out, though some tightness in the pacing is sacrificed in the intercutting between both.

Tracking shots across battlefields and through trenches like 1917 and Paths of Glory.
The scenes set around the negotiations of authorities make for a nice tonal contrast, revealing the gaping chasm between those making the decisions and the soldiers carrying them out.

Still, Berger does effectively manage to build these storylines to a unifying climax in the final act, raising our hopes for Paul and his remaining friends’ survival right before they are commanded to attack the French in one last show of German strength and dignity, fifteen minutes before the armistice at 11am. Paul has made some real friendships with other men while on the Western Front, and Berger spends a lot of time building out the sensitivity and warmth of these connections as the sole pleasures to be found in wartime, yet as we wind towards the end, even these companionships feel ultimately pointless. They aren’t enough to stop one soldier from killing himself out of fear of being permanently crippled, and perhaps even Paul himself could be held partly responsible for the chilling murder of his friend, Kat, by the son of a farmer they have been stealing from.

Immense compositional beauty as Kat faces up to the consequences of his thieving, set in this forest of towering, black trees and soft, blue mist.

The implication of there being quiet on the Western Front is put forward in the bookends of Berger’s film as a pair of fateful tragedies, recognising the cruel irony that only when its occupants are dead can there ever be true silence across its muddy fields and burnt forests. His direction does not hold back from demonstrating the haunting chill of these scenes either, certainly in the audio that whispers quiet breezes through the trenches, but also in the visuals which position the camera as the only moving thing in this environment. The sounds of gunshots, explosions, and screams may be confronting to hear, but All Quiet on the Western Front recognises that the true misery of war emerges in the still, lifeless aftermath, where an insurmountable grief is born.

A quiet bookend to the start of the film, returning to still, natural landscapes.

All Quiet on the Western Front is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Fabelmans (2022)

Steven Spielberg | 2hr 31min

In Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical memory piece The Fabelmans, moviemaking is a superpower for young Sammy Fabelman. As a child, his miniature reconstruction of a frightening train crash he witnessed in The Greatest Show on Earth helps him understand his terror by first controlling it, then putting it out into the world. As a teenager, he learns how he can shape others’ perceptions of reality to his own choosing, forcing his high school bully to undergo a personal, emotional reckoning by framing him as a hero. The heartbreaking compilation he cuts together of brief glances shared between his mother, Mitzi, and family friend, Bennie, carries the power of both these short films. It is simultaneously a way for him to pour out anxieties regarding his parents’ crumbling relationship, and also a message to Mitzi of the pain she is inflicting on her own children.

Sammy’s love of watching and making films may be his driving passion, and yet throughout so much of The Fabelmans it is merely secondary to the drama going on elsewhere. The implication of storytelling is only barely concealed within the family’s name, which itself is only a thin cover for the real people they are based on – the Spielbergs. The famed director of blockbusters and historical films turns his camera on his younger self here in what may be his most personal work yet, piecing together vignettes of his youth in a concerted effort to understand where his identity and art intersect. His Jewish heritage is an integral part of that, but so too are the tiny quirks that make his family so unique, such as their tradition of only using paper plates at dinner so Mitzi doesn’t have to damage her piano-playing hands while washing dishes. The eventual separation of his parents carries on a poignant thread of divorce that has lingered on the edges of many other Spielberg films too, and here he gets to the root of that childhood trauma via the affecting performances of Michelle Williams and Paul Dano.

Spielberg goes to great lengths to instil these evocative memories with authenticity, not just decorating his home interiors with patterned wallpaper he recalls from the 60s, but even recreating his early amateur films shot-for-shot. After watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Sammy feels inspired to make a Western, and as the camera tracks backwards out of the wagon he has hired, his dad is amusingly revealed off to the side blowing dust into it. In another scene, a cluster of dead men quickly stand up, run behind the moving camera into their second position, and fall to the ground again for the end of the shot, creating the illusion of more extras than there actually are. The comedy of these scenes dissipates the moment we watch the finished cuts though, as Sammy moulds his reality into stories that enrapture his fellow scouts and students.

Spielberg’s own camera becomes actively excited too in the processes of filming, editing, and projecting movies, floating through sets in tracking shots and circling Sammy’s head as he sits at his editing machine, closely inspecting a tiny detail in his family movie that will soon change his entire life. So too is there some lovely depth of field in his cinematography, soaking in the period décor of Sammy’s multiple childhood homes, and yet it is somewhat disappointing that this celebration of cinema does not see Spielberg push the visual artform further as he has done in the past.

The Fabelmans may not be among Spielberg’s best films, though it is certainly at least one of his funniest, letting the awkward moments of adolescence roll by in Sammy’s first romance as he finds himself on his knees in the bedroom of a Christian girl intent on converting and seducing him at the same time. David Lynch’s cameo appearance as Sammy’s idol John Ford is similarly played for laughs, but the huge significance of this scene is not at all lost in the humour, drawing directly from Spielberg’s own experience as a young production assistant. He has recounted this brief meeting in many interviews, though to see it play out cinematically feels even more monumental. Cinephiles will immediately recognise the music from the opening of The Searchers as the camera pans around the waiting room adorned by posters of The Quiet Man, Stagecoach, and The Grapes of Wrath, and the lesson that Ford instils in the young aspiring filmmaker also rings true in its own funny way.

“When the horizon’s at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit.”

There couldn’t be a more perfect ending to this film’s thoughtful consideration of cinema’s raw construction than the final visual gag that references this teaching, breaking the fourth wall in such a Godardian manner that makes you wish the film was always this inventive. As it is though, The Fabelmans is not so interested in pushing formal boundaries than offering a pure insight into its director’s youth, seeking the source of his greatest and most tragic inspirations. Sammy may often come off as an ordinary kid throughout the film, but just as we put immense faith in Spielberg to pull at our heartstrings with the tools of his craft, his younger surrogate looks like the most confident, powerful man in America the moment he picks up a camera.

The Fabelmans is currently playing in theatres.

The Banshees of Inisherin (2022)

Martin McDonagh | 1hr 54min

“There are no banshees in Inisherin,” Pádraic tells his ex-drinking buddy, Colm, a few weeks into their widening rift. This rural island is too quiet for any wailing hags, though even without loudly announcing her presence, their elderly, nosey neighbour Mrs McCormick virtually serves the same purpose, mysteriously prowling around town and dealing out ominous warnings. “I just don’t think they scream to portend death anymore,” Colm wryly surmises. “I think they just sit back quietly, amused, and observe.”

That’s about all there is to do in a village as beautifully monotonous as this. The day that Colm tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to be his friend anymore may be the first time in years that anything vaguely interesting has happened here, and it is telling that almost everyone has the exact same response to this piece of the gossip.

“Have you been rowin’?”

“I don’t think we’ve been rowin’.”

McDonagh’s photography is soaked in Ireland’s gorgeous coastal scenery of rolling green hills and rocky roads, marking one of his finest visual accomplishments.

Martin McDonagh has always had a knack for bringing to life the idiosyncratic details of his film settings, from the Belgian city of Bruges to the Missourian town of Ebbing, though his fictional creation of Inisherin is uniquely detailed in its formal construction. The name itself sounds like an Irish, drunken mumble, pieced together by syllables one barely needs to open their mouth to pronounce. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson’s deadpan Irishmen are just as unremarkable as their neighbours, each of whom McDonagh defines with amusingly familiar traits. The naïve barman, the short-tempered police officer, and the gossip-prone priest stand among them, while Barry Keoghan takes on the supporting role of Dominic, a troubled boy with an awkward crush on Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán. In effect, Inisherin is distinguished as an insulated bubble unconcerned with anything outside its borders. Being surrounded by people like these, it isn’t hard to see why Colm’s personal ambitions have started to outgrow his station in life.

A rich assortment of characters fill out McDonagh’s ensemble, from the figurative banshee Mrs McCormick, to Barry Keoghan’s simple-minded Dominic.

So too does McDonagh have grander things on his mind in his telling of Colm and Pádraic’s petty conflict. It is a tale older than the Bible, calling back to the hostility between brothers Cain and Abel, and it is also reflected in the broader political context of the film’s setting during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s – something McDonagh is sure to keep reminding us of with the intermittent explosions across the channel. Just a few years prior, those men who are now killing each other were fighting side-by-side in the Irish War of Independence, united against a common enemy. Now, they are turning minor grievances into major affronts, which from history we know had long-lasting impacts on future generations, dividing Ireland through the Troubles and into the present day.

Not that the inhabitants of Inisherin show much interest in any of this. At one point they mention an execution going on somewhere that vaguely captures their attention, but which side is on which end of it holds little importance. Upon their tiny isle, just beyond the reach of the fighting, the battle between Colm and Pádraic is far more fascinating, especially when Gleeson’s cantankerous fiddle player begins threatening to cut off his own fingers each time his ex-friend bothers him. Whether it is through Mrs McCormick’s prophecies or Colm’s ultimatums, violence in The Banshees of Inisherin never comes without warning, letting McDonagh settle a thick air of dread over the isle, anxiously anticipating each casualty of this bitter feud.

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson reunite for the first time since McDonagh’s 2008 debut, In Bruges, and this screenplay is pitched perfectly to their offbeat, deadpan chemistry.

It is easy enough for those looking in from the outside to see how unnecessary this brutality is, though this is not even the most darkly ironic part of McDonagh’s screenplay. In opposition to Colm’s longing for greatness, Pádraic takes the side of kindness, arguing that it holds more value than any grand cultural legacy one might leave behind. Through their respective retaliations though, both ultimately deny themselves the high ground. Without his index finger, Colm’s fiddle playing sounds scratchy and crude, and McDonagh casts the shadow of his mutilated hand up on his bedroom wall in the moonlight like a haunting reminder of his ineptitude. On the other side of the division, Pádraic’s patience gradually wears thin, pushing him to the brink of his niceness until it is left as fragmented as the mirror he punches out of anger.

Pádraic punches this mirror at his darkest point, and then McDonagh returns to it again later in a fractured reflection of his face.

With such a mature visual style navigating The Banshees of Inisherin’s bitter conflict, this may very well be the first time McDonagh has paired his dryly tragicomic writing with cinematography that approaches the same level of excellence. The green Irish coastline and rocky hills become a rich backdrop to the drama in stunning establishing shots, positioning Colm’s cottage above an ocean view as if subtly luring him away from the ennui of Inisherin. Meanwhile, the roads to Pádraic’s house are lined with dry stone walls that draw partitions in the scenery, hemming him into the life he has always known.

Character conveyed through the formal contrast of Colm and Pádraic’s cottages – one hemmed in by stone walls, and the other overlooking the ocean.

This distinction continues to be repeated in the divisions of McDonagh’s staging as well, often framing Farrell outside windows while Gleeson sits quietly in the foreground, refusing to make eye contact. The two separate occasions where Pádraic simply peers inside to check on his friend with no further interaction makes for a particularly nice formal touch here, offering a light, sympathetic connection that can never quite bridge the gap between them.

Pádraic often finds himself looking in at Colm from the outside, divisions drawn between them in the staging.

Even at Colm and Pádraic’s lowest moments, this tender affection continues to arise, bringing layers of poignancy to McDonagh’s Irish fable of broken brotherhood and war. On several occasions, it very nearly convinces us that there may be some sort of resolution to their conflict as well – if not for the better, then at least with a cynical finality. After all, it was specifically two deaths that Mrs McCormick foreshadowed, so it would be fair to assume that those on the frontlines would be the ones who suffer most.

But the work that McDonagh does building out the larger community beyond this battle proves to be important here, as although many might not take sides or even accept that the quarrel has anything to do with them, its reverberations are felt as a stifled, prolonged sorrow. “Some things there’s no moving on from, and I think that’s a good thing,” Colm accepts, and though his and Pádraic’s eyes are finally both set on the horizon beyond Inisherin, the lonely, rocky isle has never felt more like a prison, built from the self-destructive labours of their own contempt.

The Banshees of Inisherin is currently playing in theatres.

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

James Cameron | 3hr 12min

When James Cameron finished crafting his spectacular immersion into the world of Pandora in 2009, he decided along with so many sufferers of post-Avatar depression syndrome (a real thing back then) that he never wanted to leave. The thirteen years spent further developing the film technology to realise his dream subsequently delayed the sequel for much longer than anticipated, but for those who admire the charm, artistry, and imagination of Avatar, the wait is well worth it.

After a first hour which mostly feels like a rehash of what we have already seen in the jungles of Pandora, Avatar: The Way of Water dazzles us all over again with Cameron’s monumentally creative ambition, refocusing Jake Sully’s spiritual journey through the lens of a marine adventure, family drama, and survival story. Even for audiences who previously lamented the lack of compelling character dynamics, Cameron gives reason to keep watching – the relationships between parents and children are at the heart of this breathtaking follow-up, testing the strength of both generations with the pressures of their intimate yet precarious bonds.

Unlike the first Avatar, character development takes slight precedence over plot in The Way of Water, building out each member of Jake’s family with care.

Of course, this would not be an Avatar film if it didn’t expand these family connections into a broader statement on the unity of all life, painting out island-dwelling civilisations, sentient reefs, and underwater environments as interconnected, ecological marvels. Cameron holds back on these spectacular aquatic visuals in the film’s first act, instead spending time laying out its new characters alongside the stakes of humanity’s blazing return to Pandora. A few pacing issues here can be forgiven once Jake and his family leave their forest home, flying through violent tempests, over turquoise waters, and finally arriving at the Metkayina clan’s coastal village, stretched out across alien mangrove trees where they build their huts. Here, The Way of Water finallytakes the time to step beyond the urgency of its plot for a while, and instead languish in its mesmerising worldbuilding.

There is no shortage of scenic landscapes in The Way of Water, and you would hope for nothing less from James Cameron. This easily stands among the most visually accomplished films of the year.

The first time we join Jake and his family diving beneath the waves, it feels like discovering Pandora all over again. Though some of Earth’s real sea animals may actually look like alien lifeforms, Cameron’s bioluminescent creatures take that to the next level with prehistoric anatomies and fairylike designs, drifting in graceful movements through Pandora’s vibrant marine plant life. No detail is wasted in his creation, with even the local sea Na’vi being visually set apart from their forest counterparts, possessing slightly greener skin, larger eyes, and fins along their forearms.

There may be no other working filmmaker who approaches digital effects with such artistry. Cameron carries on the theme of bioluminescent plants from the jungles of Pandora and works it into the reef, casting blue and purple light upon his characters’ faces in dramatic scenes.

In one especially thrilling scene, a sharklike creature with a mouth that splits open in three directions poses a threat to Jake’s son, Lo’ak, when he disobediently ventures into the depths of the reef, but even this terror is shortly diminished by a significant encounter with perhaps the ocean’s most extraordinary wonder. The ‘tulkun’ he befriends has the appearance of great, lumpy whale with a few extra appendages, eyes, and blowholes, and inside its gaping mouth is a breathtaking, kaleidoscopic starscape that seems to look to the heavens.

Alien reefs brimming with creatures from our dreams and nightmares. Cameron’s world building is both remarkable in its depth and marvellously composed here to tell a story.

It is Kiri though who we see undergo the greatest spiritual journey of all here, finding her desired connection to her deceased mother, Dr Grace Augustine, through the ocean’s neural network. Sigourney Weaver returns in this de-aged and motion-captured role as a beacon of awestruck wonder, bonding with the marine life and the aquatic ‘Spirit Tree’ in such a way that stands out from even the locals. Meanwhile, Jake’s children bear the brunt of their father’s celebrated legacy, uncertain of how they can live up to it while being simultaneously threatened by the danger it attracts. Among them lives Jake’s adopted human child, Spider, whose separation from the others early on in The Way of Water sets him on an entirely different trajectory, wrestling with the identity of his biological father – Colonel Miles Quatrich.

If there is something that is missing in so many modern blockbusters which Cameron gets right, it’s a kind of spectacle which doesn’t simply elicit cheers by giving audiences what we expect – it’s the overwhelming awe that comes from sheer imagination and invention.

Stephen Lang’s once-flat villain is resurrected here into a far more fascinatingly complex figure than he was before, incorporating traces of John Wayne’s hypocritical prejudice from The Searchers in his vengeful search for his old nemesis. Colonel Quaritch’s adoption of Na’vi culture as a means to survive this world is deftly intercut with Jake’s own discovery of the Metkayina’s aquatic culture, drawing a formal comparison between these enemies. Extending this even further is the unexpectedly softer edge we find in this craggy military man, brought about by his renewed yet troubled relationship with his son. Even beneath the motion-capture, the subtle breaks in Lang’s face are clear, setting his performance up as one of the strongest in the film against Jack Champion’s disappointingly weak portrayal of Spider.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Colonel Quaritch redeemed entirely at some point in this series given where Cameron leaves him here, opening further opportunities to explore different angles of The Way of Water’s parent-child relationships. Perhaps it is these nuanced sensitivities which makes the threat he poses even more impactful, seeing him adopt pieces of Na’vi culture to fulfil the goal of ending Jake’s insurgency and subsequently colonising their world for human habitation. Cameron returns to ingrained, mythological archetypes here too, as where the first film pitted the earthbound natives against the ‘Sky People’, this sequel covers the remaining elements by introducing a water centric Na’vi clan, and defining humans in opposition with scorching, fiery destruction.

Fire and water are two key motifs in this film, representing the conflict between humans and the Na’vi.

The epic action set piece that Cameron builds The Way of Water towards brings both into vicious conflict, evoking the apocalyptic final act of Titanic with another boat simultaneously burning and flooding on the open ocean. The scale matches the enormous final conflict of Avatar, though it is also more purposefully character-driven, dextrously balancing the parallel editing between Jake, his family, and their adversaries.

There are few working filmmakers who exert such precise control over these immense, cinematic visions, placing Cameron in the same prestigious air as classical directors like David Lean or D.W. Griffith, who instead of giving the moviegoing masses what they expected, enchanted with them with sights they had never seen before. In the case of The Way of Water, its sentimental heart is not lost in Cameron’s ingenious, visual invention, but rather melds with it to sweep us away on waves of awe, riding a transcendent wonder at the remarkable abnormality of life.

Avatar: The Way of Water is currently playing in theatres.

Pinocchio (2022)

Guillermo del Toro | 1hr 57min

It is no surprise that Guillermo del Toro’s take on Pinocchio is a darkly tragic reframing of the original fable, adding the boy puppet to his collection of sympathetic monsters he has amassed throughout his career. Nor is it uncharacteristic of him to choose a wartime backdrop for this thoughtful consideration of oppressive fathers and approval-seeking sons, given the similar settings used in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. What is truly astounding is just how morbidly existential this interpretation is, even by his own standards, separating Pinocchio’s desire to become ‘real’ from Disney’s metaphor of sharpening one’s moral judgement, and instead attaching it to his gradual acceptance a limited, mortal life.

Del Toro’s foray into stop-motion animation is also perfectly suited this allegory of marionettes and blind followers, not just literalising Pinocchio as an actual puppet, but every other character in this story as well. Almost all of them are serving masters of some kind, driven into their arms by the senseless violence of World War I, and it is only by untethering themselves from those cruel leaders and willingly facing up to the world’s dangers on their own that they are able to transcend their own nature as mere puppets.

Setting this fairy tale in fascist Italy is a bold move from del Toro, and it pays off in a huge way. It isn’t so much grounding this in the real world as it is using recognisable politics to underscore its examination of fathers, sons, and obedience.

It is apparent simply from these creative visuals that Pinocchio is a passion project for del Toro. This is a director who has frequently invented his own fairy tales throughout his career, and yet it is only for the first time here that he is going straight to the source of his interests with a direct adaptation. This renewed focus allows him to dig even deeper into mythological archetypes of ancient Greece than ever before, as he sets Pinocchio out on an epic odyssey across fascist Italy and its surrounding waters. In place of sirens, there is Count Volpe’s promise of fame with his travelling theatre. Legendary sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis become the monstrous Dogfish, eating whatever creatures are unfortunate enough to pass by it. Even Mussolini makes a cameo as a godlike dictator, aiming bullets at a defiant Pinocchio where Zeus might have thrown lightning bolts.

A great lumpy beast of a sea monster – the Dogfish sequence doesn’t quite reach the heights of the sequence from Disney’s Pinocchio in 1940, but is uniquely del Toro.

The most existentially concerning of all the obstacles encountered through the film though is the eerie underworld guarded by Death, taking the form of a Chimera. The sentience granted to Pinocchio by her sister, the angelic Wood Sprite, did not make him fully mortal, and so while he cannot properly pass into the afterlife, each visit to this uncanny limbo will be longer than the last. Tilda Swinton does well in lending an authoritative voice to both these supernatural creatures, laying out the greatest stakes of all to this boy as he slowly comes to terms with the curse of immortality.

Some daunting character designs from del Toro, drawing on the Chimera of ancient Greek mythology as a figure of Death.

Filling out the rest of this immensely talented voice casts is David Bradley, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, and Cate Blanchett, though it is Ewan McGregor’s turn as Sebastian J. Cricket that stands out among them, giving Pinocchio’s insectile conscience a pompous Scottish brogue. The home he makes in a pine tree destined to be chopped down and turned into a marionette positions him right where the boy’s heart would be, though rather than becoming an objective voice of reason, he too is given his own emotional development in learning the virtue of selfless generosity.

In fact, del Toro spends a commendable amount of time building out resonant arcs through many of his supporting characters, frequently embodying one of two archetypal journeys – fathers learning to accept their sons, and sons learning to live without their father’s approval. Along the line of the former, Geppetto is given his own heartbreaking backstory that frames his parenting of Pinocchio as a second chance, though one which he approaches with shame and uncertainty. Along the latter, del Toro offers immensely rich characterisations to smaller parts such as Spazzatura, Count Volpe’s monkey assistant, and Candlewick, the son of a fascist government official, both of whom move past their initial rivalries with Pinocchio and find a likeness in their struggles for acceptance. On a broader scale, the constant patriarchal talk of serving the ‘Fatherland’ places these individual stories in a very specific political context, offering those who do as they are told false assurances that they will find fulfilment in their duty.

The scenes at the training camp are some of the darkest of the film, both visually and thematically, and del Toro revels in his use of lighting.

The historical detail that del Toro painstakingly imbues in his world is only outdone by the vivid tactility of its aesthetic design, carving deep indentations into every distinctive character feature from Geppetto’s tufty beard to Pinocchio’s wood grain. With so much attention poured into the rough cracks and worn edges of his figurines, perhaps there is some power lacking in his visual compositions, seldom possessing the sort of carefully staged arrangements present in his greatest works. Neither does Alexandre Desplat’s score inspire the same sentimental evocations as his previous collaboration with del Toro, The Shape of Water, which is especially disappointing given the movie-musical format.

A stunning arrangement of trees around Pinocchio and Geppetto in this forest.

Still, there is no arguing against the meticulous artistry of del Toro’s animation, carrying all the trademarks of his distinctive style over into an entirely new medium, while pushing it even further with some brilliantly inventive designs. Quite remarkably, he expresses an incredible amount of personality and emotion through these figurines, resonating Geppetto’s “terrible, terrible joy” across each character who ends up finding both value and sorrow in parenthood, independence, and mortality. It is ultimately only by moving past their immature, self-preserving instincts that any of them, whether human, animal, or puppet, discover what it really means to be “real.”

A poignant pair of bookends, marking the beginning and end of the film with tragic loss – the circle of life.

Pinocchio is currently streaming on Netflix.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths (2022)

Alejandro Iñárritu | 2hr 39min

More consistent than the regularity with which Alejandro Iñárritu has released new films over the past decade or so is the insurmountable ambition which guides them, and there is certainly no understating that aspect of Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths. Here, the darkly comic self-criticisms of Birdman meet with the surreal awe of The Revenant, and together sprawl out across an introspective examination of Mexican culture, history, and politics. As a result, this film is both an intimately spiritual experience and easily his most inaccessible yet. Iñárritu has effectively carved out his own narrow niche in the arthouse cinema landscape, turning the indulgence and extravagance he is so often criticised of into Bardo’s greatest strengths, and thereby lulling us into a lucid dream that seeks some unity in the metaphysical absurdity of his complicated life.

Mexican documentarian Silverio Gama acts as a character surrogate for Iñárritu here, and there is barely a second of screen time in this expansive, wandering film that doesn’t centre him. He resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Lucia, and his son, while his daughter lives out of home. It is the spectre of a third child, Mateo, who has the most impactful presence of them all though, constantly lingering in the background of family conversations. His introduction comes in the first few minutes when we find ourselves in the hospital where Lucia is giving birth, though in an amusingly surreal twist of circumstances, the doctor announces that the baby has told him that he never wanted to come out to begin with.

“He says the world is too fucked up.”

Astounding compositions from the start, funnelling this hospital corridor down to Silverio waiting outside the delivery room. Certainly a hint of spirituality here too, foreshadowing the journey to come.

Naturally, it is back into the womb for Mateo, who will remain eternally young without ever knowing a full life. The scene is played for laughs, ending with Lucia’s umbilical cord grotesquely trailing after her and Silverio as they leave down the hallway, but it only barely conceals the tragedy lurking beneath. It isn’t until over an hour later that we learn the truth of Mateo’s existence, which lasted a mere 30 hours before he passed away and consumed his family with an anguish that they haven’t yet learnt to let go of. His scattered appearances throughout the rest of the film intermittently come at the unlikeliest times, but such is the nature of his memory that those who loved him most will often find ordinary activities disturbed by their unresolved grief.

“Mateo’s just an idea now. Not a person.”

Wide angle lenses emphasising a distance between Silverio and others even in these scenes of intimate connection.

The liminal space that Mateo lingers within between life and death thus gives the film the first part of its title – what Buddhist philosophy calls ‘bardo’. So too can it be applied to the experience of the film as a whole, contextualising Silverio’s endless wandering between dreams and memories as the existential thoughts of a man facing down his own mortality. Through Iñárritu’s persistent, wide-angle lens, Silverio is distanced from the world around him, whether he is intimately framed right up against the camera away from his environment or pushed off into the distance of gigantic set pieces. Daniel Giménez Cacho’s versatile talents as an actor are well-suited to this off-kilter aesthetic too, seeing him command the screen with expressive dance moves to an acapella rendition of ‘Let’s Dance’, and conversely lash out at critics who disparage his work as “pretentious and pointlessly oneiric”.

A transcendently bizarre scene set to an acapella version of ‘Let’s Dance’, as the camera swings back and forth, up and around Silverio’s head.

Therein lies the reasoning behind the second part of the film’s title, with False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths being the name of Silverio’s latest movie – an autobiographical piece of docufiction not unlike what we are watching. In fact, Iñárritu’s screenplay even goes so far as to single out specific scenes from earlier in the film as the target of the friend’s scathing evaluation, putting both himself and Silverio in an awkward, defensive position that only reveals their own bitterness. Perhaps Silverio is right in calling out the hollow sensationalism of their work in the media industry, though it doesn’t make him any less out-of-touch with a modern world that he laments “slips through our fingers.”

In conducting such a personal examination of his art and how it is shaped by his difficult relationships with others, Bardo lives beneath the giant shadow of 8 ½, paralleling Federico Fellini’s comically surreal journey into his own mind on multiple levels. The characters of Guido and Silverio are themselves quite similar in the fanciful, existential musings that disconnect them from reality, though an entire ocean separates their respective cultures. In place of Italian paparazzi and Catholic guilt, Bardo is soaked in references to Mexican politics, history, entertainment, and social issues that few films have addressed before with such intensive focus. Although some familiarity may be handy in understanding the world that is inherently part of Silverio’s identity, Iñárritu does not set this up as a prerequisite to absorbing oneself in his emotional journey.

Iñárritu is working with a huge number of extras in so many scenes, rivalling The Revenant in sheer scope and scale.

Instead, it is the sheer power of Iñárritu’s visual imagery and symbols which engage our understanding of Silverio as a man whose complicated relationship with his nation can’t be simplified into a single talk show interview. Early on as he debates the U.S. ambassador on the matter of the Mexican-American war, he conjures a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Chapultepec right on the grounds where they meet, emphasising the patriotic bravery of the outnumbered soldiers that legend has named Niños Héroes. This scene additionally showcases some of cinematographer Darius Khondji’s finest work, fluidly pivoting the camera from a simple conversation to largescale warfare, and subsequently flying through the precisely choreographed action in long, dynamic takes.

The Battle of Chapultepec is one of Bardo’s first great surreal set pieces, but certainly not the last, reenacting Mexican history by blending the past and the present in long, fluid takes.

Metaphor and spectacle are woven even closer together later in more explicitly surreal interludes, at one point seeing Silverio wander around an empty, rundown city that gradually springs to life in a lengthy, parallel tracking shot. The woman in the crowd who suddenly drops to the ground goes ignored by everyone but him, and when he investigates, she informs him “I’m not dead. I’m missing.” What follows is a disaster of apocalyptic proportions, seeing every other citizen except for Silverio fall one by one, joining the statistics of Mexicans who have been killed or kidnapped by organised crime rings, and eventually leaving the city silent once again.

The ‘disappearances’ of civilians by organised crime is rendered as an apocalyptic crisis in this chilling nightmare.

With the sun rapidly sinking below the horizon, it is a fluent transition into Silverio’s next vision set in the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, where Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, sits atop a mountain of Indigenous bodies, reciting passages of Octavio Paz’s poetry. There, Silverio spills out the complicated feelings that many Mexicans today hold towards the man who laid the foundations of their civilisation through genocide, though such weighty scenes are never so burdened by dense dialogue as to grow tedious. All through these Fellini-inspired sequences, Iñárritu’s direction is as graceful and hypnotic as the seamless transition from one dream to the next, building out a stream-of-consciousness structure that just keeps on revealing new depths to this filmmaker’s insecure, troubled mind.

Hernán Cortés and Silverio stand atop a mountain of Indigenous corpses in Mexico City’s main square, speaking of their nation’s shameful foundations – heady, intellectual stuff that will turn away a lot of casual viewers hoping for lighter fare.

Tying all these historical diversions back to Silverio’s relationship with his nation is the contradictory nature of his own patriotism, making him just as likely to praise Mexico’s proud heroes as he is to express his shame over its rampant crime. Much of his stance at any given time depends on who he is speaking to, in one instance correcting his son that their home country is not “poor”, just “unequal,” though as an immigrant choosing to live a life of privilege in the United States, he is still vilified for “kissing gringo ass.” A quiet curiosity that often emerges in such interactions is speech that comes from closed lips, suggesting some obstacle of communication between characters, though never being tangibly explained besides a few throwaway lines that ask others to “Talk with your mouth.”

Silvero shouts and screams atop a stage, but he goes entirely ignored, save for the nun nailing his feet to the floor.

This is undoubtedly a project of immense passion and ambition for Iñárritu, and easily his most avant-garde, touching on the extensive range of worldly influences that have shaped him into an adventurous filmmaker, grieving father, and sceptical Mexican expatriate. If Fellini’s artistic inspiration was there in the film’s opening with a point-of-view shot flying up into the air above a desert and falling back to Earth, then it is even more present in the brilliant climax that returns to the arid wasteland, gathering the various loved ones in his life for a final celebration. Even the marching band from the Battle of Chapultepec re-enactment is present, underscoring Silverio’s journey through the transitory ‘bardo’ afterlife with a bright, brassy melody, more than a little reminiscent of the closing music from 8 ½. Iñárritu’s bold abstraction of one man’s fading life may be cynical and even absurdly funny at points, but in bridging the gap between material and immaterial worlds, it is also a deeply spiritual work, building a mountain of rich visual metaphors to deliver one of the most formally complex cinematic achievements of the past few years.

The arid Mexican desert becomes a crossroads between Earth and the afterlife – it’s hard not to call to mind the final scenes of The Tree of Life.

Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is currently streaming on Netflix.