'Baraka' is breathtaking but skewed

March 04, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

"Baraka," which opens today at the Senator, is a kind of nonverbal, nonlinear meditation on the subject, Our World, Whither Goest Thou? It answers: straight into the toilet.

The word "Baraka" itself, or so the press notes inform, is a Sufi term that means "Too Many French Fries." For the movie, at its worst, plays like an internal gas bubble in search of a Rolaid. Oh, all right, Film Critic is having some mean-spirited fun with the pious. Actually, "Baraka" means "Blessing," and of course the one exotic word moniker means to link it to "Koyaanisqatsi," another mystic, image-driven jeremiad much beloved by the New Age set.

That isn't to say it's difficult to sit through. In fact, as sheer photography, "Baraka" is spectacular. The director, Ron Fricke, is something of a 70-mm specialist (he did the IMAX film "Chronos," as well as serving as cinematographer for "Koyaanisqatsi"), and as a director he's a pretty good photographer.

"Baraka" shows us some mind-blowing footage: It penetrates the holy mosque at Mecca, a truly astonishing vision; it watches as the clouds, in fast time, froth and roar across a mountain range like the surf beating against the rocks, an image that carries with it the unmistakable meaning of scale, expressing our own smallness in the vastness of the universe; it loves bright colors of Third World ritual and shows us a number of mind-boggling celebrations that heretofore only ethnographers have witnessed.

Its best value, for my money, is its profound reverence for the spiritual in man. It pauses to make no discriminations in belief systems, but conjures them all up in equal awe, taking us into the heart of religious architecture and making us see wonder with the eyes of a novitiate. A mirror-surfaced Muslim mosque it enters late in the going seems somehow an emblem of all that man can be; and it loves the world's inventory of grand religious structures, panning slowly about pyramid and cathedral and temple, making them shimmer with meaning.

It acknowledges God, clearly. Maybe not your God, maybe not mine, but God, nevertheless, in a sky that is vibrant with light and cloud or smeared with a radiant jelly of stars. It finds mysticism in the rising and setting of the sun and moon, in eclipses, in all the tidal yanks and shifts. One extrapolates from its tapestry of image a sense of Earth as a complex gizmo benignly ruled by an omnipotent hand.

Except for people.

For, of course, predictably, "Baraka" wears its tendentious politics on its glittery sleeve. The equation is primitive: nature, good/civilization, bad. This it expresses in a number of dreary ways. It rises in crescendo from blanket endorsement of the "natural" world (and it sees faith as natural) to blanket condemnation of the industrial world. It loves to depict cities as huge machines in which people and automobiles are but tiny clicking gears and cogs, though it doesn't feel at all self-conscious in making this point the only way it could be made, by fast-motion photography with incredibly powerful zoom lenses.

Sometimes, it's offensive: It draws a visual comparison between industrial workers feeding a furnace in some steel foundry and the crematoriums at Auschwitz. I would argue that the crematoriums at Auschwitz are irreducible to glib metaphor and shouldn't be exploited in such a flip way.

Sometimes, it's stupid. It examines a desert floor jammed with B-52s rotting in the sun, an image it offers as corruption of the natural order. So does this mean that the filmmakers would prefer those B-52s holding at their fail-safe points just outside the Soviet Union, poised, as they were for 30 years, on the very edge of ending the world in fire? Put the bombers on the desert; like, who cares about the sagebrush?

Sometimes, it's absurd: It's one thing to love Angkor Wat and hate "the city" if you're traveling the world for the Samuel Goldwyn company and at night you go back to the Phnom Penh Howard Johnson's. But . . . try making a living in Angkor Wat. Nobody could; that's why it's a ruin.

And it hopelessly sentimentalizes the bloody Third World. I always wonder why those who adore this sector of humanity never show us . . . the toilets. If the Third World is so wonderful, then show us the toilets, the squalor, the filth, the whole package. Show us female genital mutilation, slavery, ritual scarring, virulent and savage misogynism, vicious exploitation. In other words: Show us the whole package.

'Baraka'

Documentary

Directed by Ron Fricke

Released by Samuel Goldwyn

PG-rated

** 1/2

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