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Written by: Constantine Nicholas, Genevieve Nicholas
Directed by: Ron Fricke
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 96
Date: 09/15/1992

Baraka (1992)

3 Stars (out of 4)

No Monkey Business

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

As soon as it was invented, cinema began to attract storytellers. The mere nature of the beast -- a long roll of film with a beginning, a middle and an end -- seemed built for the singular purpose of telling stories. But over the years, a few cinema artists have stood back and asked themselves: Why does it have to be that way? The very first film was simply a man sneezing -- no story there, just a statement. A poem about the way we live. Some of the major experimenters in this field include Andy Warhol, Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren and Michael Snow -- some household names, most not. But though I can't say for sure, the most popular form of non-narrative feature film seems to be of the Koyaanisqatsi type; a collage of beautiful images accompanied by meditative, mystical music. Director Godfrey Reggio made that ground-breaking cult film back in 1983, with writing, editing and cinematography help by Ron Fricke. In 1992, Fricke made his own feature debut with Baraka, a film obviously inspired by and similar to Koyaanisqatsi. But while the earlier film dealt with "life out of balance" as its theme, Baraka seems more concerned with the rhythms of life.

Baraka caught on in a big way. Since 1992, I've seen it listed at least once a year, if not more often, on either the Castro's or the Red Vic's quarterly calendars. But I'm told that this is the first time it has been shown in the Bay Area in its original 70mm format. It opens today at the Castro for a two-week run.

Baraka's major strength is its realization that life happens all over the world and not just in America. While scanning the list of visited countries during the end credits, I lost count. Fricke ventured everywhere from Iran to Japan to Arizona to record his images. As the film begins, we're treated to an enormous shot of snowy mountains. The 70mm makes the shot so deep and clear that I could actually make out the branches of trees on the furthest mountain. Indeed, the film stole my breath away many times afterward. One of the most haunting images is of a monkey half-submerged in what looks like freezing water. Miniature icicles form at the tips of the monkey's fur. Fricke's camera lingers on the monkey's face for so long that we begin to suspect that it's deep in thought. We begin to wonder what he might be thinking about.

The film flip flops between such mesmerizing images to images of sheer beauty, like the flames of hundreds of candles swaying beneath a man's hands, or a row of airplanes perfectly and artfully lined up on an airfield. Then the images become heavy and dark. Hundreds of factory workers roll cigarettes or thoughtlessly shove baby chicks down a conveyer belt (someday soon they'll produce eggs for some hungry nation). Each face has its own story to tell. The movie's most shocking image is that of a burning corpse during some far-away funeral. But as a true non-narrative film, the ideas come and go and change like the time of day or like the weather. The scenes do not seem to be in any particular order; they don't build a story. Rather, they allow the viewer to simply relax and meditate, or retreat into the subconscious and ponder.

As an audience, most of us are not trained to handle a two-hour non-narrative film, and to be sure, parts of Baraka will seem tedious to many viewers. But the beauty of the film is that no two viewers will find the same scenes successful or tedious and every viewer will see the film in his or her own way. Even if you're not concentrating on every single image that comes on the screen -- even if your mind occasionally sets sail for parts unknown -- the film still succeeds.

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