Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews


Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Ron Fricke, director
Mpi Home Video. 1993, 2001. 104 minutes.
DVD format. Color. Dolby.

Ron Fricke's classic 1993 movie, Baraka, begins with a lingering shot of several peaceful snow monkeys sitting in the abandoned cistern of a hot spring somewhere in the mountains of Japan. It is just after dawn. The steam from the spring wafts around the simian bathers.

The camera settles on one monkey in particular. He seems elderly and clearly wishes nothing more than to remain where he is. The camera keeps going to his eyes. They are now pensive, now sleepy, remarkably human.

By the end of this remarkable movie, the viewer will have traveled the world and time in luxurious 70mm format until the sun sets and darkness swaths the arcuate stone monoliths of The Arches National Park, in Utah. From Near East to Far, to South America and the American West, at normal speed and in time-lapse, Fricke gives the viewer brief visits to scores of venues in over 20 countries. It is a journey that just gets better as television screens get bigger.

The viewer will not necessarily know where on earth he or she is as there is no dialog or narrative and there are no descriptive subtitles, a method that lends itself particularly well to majestic landscapes and meditative religious scenes. They will recognize the Zen meditation garden, perhaps, timeless and placeless although this particular garden is located in Kyoto, Japan, and the hats and meditation dance of the whirling dervishes without knowing that they are from a "lodge" in Konya, Turkey.

They may recognize the keepers of the Swayambhunath Stupa (also known as the Monkey Temple), in Kathmandu, Nepal, ritually cleansing the walls of the foundation dome, or not. It will hardly matter. In fact, it is probably better if they do not. The eyes painted on the wall behind the men need not be the eyes of the Buddha or are more so for one not knowing as much. The volcano at Mt Bromo, in Java, Indonesia, loses something of its awful aspect for stopping to ask oneself exactly which volcano it might be.

Not all is steeped in grandeur or the ages. One of the longer sequences is of the Kecak Dance of Bali. The Kecak is actually a dance created during the 1930s for tourists to the country and is rarely attended by the natives. As the film progresses beyond aboriginal Australians and the Kayapo and Yanomami tribes, of Brazil, more and more scenes feature cities such as Sao Paolo, Tokyo and New York. Street scenes in the latter two are shot entirely in time-lapse with people and automobiles taking on a frenzied anthill quality.

The cityscapes resolve into scenes of empire, poverty and carnage. A crowd of untouchables—many children—sift through a garbage dump, in Calcutta, for salvage. Women survive, in various locales, by selling themselves for men's pleasure. Composer Michael Stearns's generally unobtrusive score suddenly erupts in a cacophony of bag pipes, drums and Tibetan water music, thrumming darkly, as Kuwaiti oil fields burn and the burnt out hulks of Iraqi armored vehicles litter the roads in the wake of Saddam Hussien's withdrawal from the country. Distant violin notes and random metallic rattling punctuate an equally distant Jewish song of lament as the camera travels the ghostly halls of Auschwitz. In Laos, young soldiers lounge next to a neatly stacked pile of small ordinance at a site once associated with the terror of the Khmer Rouge. The terracotta army of Qin, in Xi'an, China, continues to stand guard over it's emperor after some 2200 years.

An eight minute "featurette," documenting the making of Baraka, is available at YouTube. According to the Producer of the film, Mark Magidson, the title is a Sufi word meaning "Blessing," chosen in order to keep the viewers' expectations as open as possible. Fricke, for his part, speaks of the film as "like doing a painting, really," the various film rolls from the 13 month shoot being cut down to the equivalent of brush strokes then spliced together into a single picture.

As the day draws to its end, in Baraka, and the light grows dim, a theme of evening prayer is invoked. Prayers to Allah give way to the sparkling, crystalline interior of a Persian mausoleum. Votive candles gutter in an Eastern Orthodox church. A lone Zen monk stands before an open doorway, with his back to the camera, meditating upon the setting sun. Half a world away, the outline of temple statuary at Luxor can be made out as it is about to be swallowed up in darkness. The Arches, in Utah, a cathedral built directly, as it were, by the hands of the gods to whom these peoples prayed, loom as the final glimmer of sunlight extinguishes behind them.

Samsara, Ron Fricke's sequel to Baraka, has been in the pipeline for well over a decade now. It has been tentatively scheduled for release some time in 2008.


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