BARAKA (1992)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ron Fricke
Cast: N/A
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 81% Certified Fresh

PLOT: The rhythms of life and time are explored in this wordless montage of spectacular filmed images from around the globe, set to a haunting, ethereal score.

Some time ago, I wrote a post on Facebook about movies with an extremely rare quality: transcendence.  Movies that are so good that mere genre definitions are not enough to quantify them.  I’m not talking about perfect examples OF a genre (Aliens, Unforgiven, Young Frankenstein, et al.)  I’m talking about movies that wind up being more than the sum of their parts and take on a haunting, spiritual quality.

Film is an extremely subjective medium, so my list of such “transcendental” movies will likely differ wildly from your own.  For example: Breaking the Waves (1996), a meditation on the capacity for human suffering, forgiveness, and the definition of belief.  Or Cloud Atlas (2012), a mind-bending journey that poses the greatest “what-if” question of our existence.  Or Fearless (1993), a mainstream drama concealing life-altering truths at its core.

And then there’s Baraka, a 1992 film that premiered in Canada on the festival circuit before receiving its American release a year later.  I suppose it would have to be classified as a documentary, since it consists entirely of wordless images edited together into a feature-length music video.  It was directed by Ron Fricke, who had previously worked with director Godfrey Reggio on Koyaanisqatsi (1982), a groundbreaking film, similar in structure to Baraka, that introduced time-lapse photography to the mainstream; it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when time-lapse was a novelty.

But this clinical description doesn’t nearly do justice to the religious experience that is Baraka.  This is one of those movies that begs for the best viewing conditions possible, on the biggest screen and with the best sound system you can afford.  The cinematography simply defies belief.  There are monumental shots of Himalayan mountain ranges, ancient temples, an enormous graveyard of decommissioned B-52 bombers, the interior of a spectacular cathedral where the walls appear to be inlaid with millions of tiny mirrors.

The film’s score is credited to Michael Stearns, but it also includes existing musical pieces that lend certain sequences an exotic, global feel.  These music choices are absolutely essential to Baraka’s success. 

In particular, a musical piece called “Host of Seraphim” by Dead Can Dance brings unbearable sadness and pity to a sequence in which we see Indian families picking through massive garbage dumps, searching for food or God knows what.  The sequence shifts to showing homeless people, families, sleeping on city streets, next to sewer grates, under makeshift shelters, and there is an overwhelming sense of mourning that this kind of thing is happening today, right now, all over the world.

In addition to the sequence above, there are also sequences depicting members of various religions worshiping in their own unique way.  And oceans of clouds swirling and flowing over and around mountaintops.  And the horrible abandoned camps at Auschwitz and in Cambodia.  And majestic waterfalls.  Oil fires in Kuwait.  A vast, still lake that perfectly mirrors the sky above it.

Every time I watch this film (this marks at least the 9th or 10th time I’ve seen it), I am left at the end feeling hopeful, expansive, with the urgent need to show this film to other people.  Is this what they mean by religious fervor?  I felt this same way after watching Parasite (2019), for example, but for very different reasons.  Parasite is thrilling.  Baraka is transcendent.  It pierces through my sometimes cynical expectations of what a movie should be and presents me with a showcase of the human experience.  It makes me feel, however temporarily, more connected to the global population as we travel through the cosmos on our huge (and also tiny) planet.  It gives me a shiver of comprehension when I look at the ruins of ancient temples on the screen and realize the people who built them many thousands of years ago were just…people.  Like you and like me.  Humans on this uniquely life-sustaining chunk of space rock, hurtling through the universe.

You may disagree with my assessment.  You may hunt it down on Netflix or Amazon or wherever, and you may give it a shot, and you may turn it off after 15 minutes, thinking, “What was he THINKING???  This is boring as hell!”  I suppose that’s the beauty of this movie.  It’s like a Rorschach test.  It doesn’t tell a story, per se.  It’s more like a tone poem, where certain images are juxtaposed with completely different images, but which are nevertheless similar.  This kind of moviemaking doesn’t always work.  (See, for example, Naqoyqatsi (2002), also directed by Reggio, part of his vaunted Qatsi trilogy, but which I find insufferably cryptic.)  But when it does work, it’s quite literally magical.

So, if you can, go ahead and see if this is available somewhere.  Check your television’s settings so you get the optimal picture.  Turn your speakers up as loud as you can get before the neighbors call 911.  And open yourself up to the possibility that a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

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