Alejandro González Iñárritu’s eagerly awaited return, following the one-two Oscar punch of Birdman and The Revenant, manages to be at once wilfully obscure, completely beautiful and so staggeringly on the nose it could form the bulbous centrepiece of a clown’s face. Whatever else it achieves (and it achieves an awful lot) few films are so opaque and yet so obvious at the same time – in itself that’s pretty impressive. And that’s before we get to how staggeringly gorgeous Bardo can look.

Daniel Giménez Cacho is wonderful as Silverio Gacho, a Mexican-born journalist-turned-documentary-filmmaker, who is to be given a major award by his LA contemporaries, sending him into a spiral of self-doubt, by turns prickly and vulnerable, as he faces his imposter syndrome and the hostility of those he left behind in Mexico. The ensuing three hours (yes, you read that right. Take snacks.) explores those feelings as well as ideas of nationhood, identity, the idea of what constitutes “home”, personal loss and political passion through a series of loosely connected vignettes, sometimes surreal, sometimes harrowing, sometimes very funny, often all three. The framing, which is non-linear, disjointed and dream-like, can often feel like a extremely high-class version of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, and though the format does eventually focus into quite jarring clarity, its to the credit of Iñárritu and his backers at Netflix that they trust the audience to go on the journey to get there.

It takes astonishing skill to make a film this long and this narratively complex and make it actually work – there are long stretches where Bardo quite deliberately makes no sense whatsoever. Not many directors could keep an audience’s attention through that, and yet for the most part Iñárritu is equal to the task. Each section, from wherever it’s drawn in the linear narrative happening somewhere in the background, manages to stay compelling in of itself, and as an audience we get used to the flowing and shifting frames and times that wobble between reality and … something else. There’s stuff here – jokes, flashes of body horror, dadaist set pieces that double as heartbreaking satire that you simply won’t have seen on screen before: The scene in which thousands of people fall to the ground on the street to represent Mexico’s “missing” is an obvious highlight (though those of a certain age are inevitably going to be reminded of Radiohead’s classic ‘Just’ video).

There’s two crucial elements that make this work, though of course both are networked into Iñárritu’s vision. Firstly there’s Daniel Giménez Cacho’s magnetic performance, holding all of Silverio’s complex self-loathing, joy and sardonic worldview in his face, present in very nearly every shot. No easy task. Secondly there’s Darius Khondji’s photography, which is consistently stunning. Each scene is marked by blocks of colour, unexpected close-ups, leisurely takes and golden-ratio framing. You could print any shot here and hang it in the Louvre.

All of this is important, because Bardo is not a straightforward film. It’s a complex mash of themes and ideas that need to be extremely well balanced in order to stop the whole thing crashing to the ground.

That said, there’s a through-line of autobiography here that is anything but opaque, however Dali-esq the landscape around it might seem. It does not take a genius to see the story of a Mexican national lavishly awarded by his American peers while having an existential identity crisis and note that it’s written and directed by a Mexican national lavishly awarded by his American peers while having an existential identity crisis. Iñárritu is many things, but he is rarely subtle. Perhaps it’s this throughline that keeps us moving through such a non-linear story?

You don’t make a film like Bardo unless you’re at the peak of your powers. You don’t start channelling Ingmar Bergman, Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick without having something genuine to say, and without being supremely confident in your ability to pull it off. Iñárritu could have taken a swing and a miss here, and we’d have admired him at the very least for taking the shot. It’s not just the swing though – it’s the connection with the ball, the precision of the aim and the home-run that comes as a result. He shoots, he scores.

It’s hard to say whether this is the director’s auter masterpiece, but it’s certainly the most personal and visceral manifestation of his vision on screen so far. It’s a journey, for sure, and it’s pure cinema.