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Baraka is a 1992 non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke. The title Baraka is a word that means blessing in a multitude of languages, deriving originally from the Arabic بركة The film is often compared to Koyaanisqatsi, the first of the Qatsi films by Godfrey Reggio for which Fricke was cinematographer. Baraka was the first in over twenty years to be photographed in the 70mm Todd-AO format. Baraka has no plot, no storyline, no actors, no dialogue nor any voice-over. Instead, the film uses themes to present new steps and evoke emotion through pure cinema. Baraka is a kaleidoscopic, global compilation of both natural events and by fate, life and activities of humanity on Earth. Baraka's subject matter has some similarities to Koyaanisqatsi—including footage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities thrumming with life, filmed using time-lapse photography in order to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity. The film features a number of long tracking shots through various settings, including Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng: over photos of the people involved, past skulls stacked in a room, to a spread of bones.
Baraka, first released in 1992, comes from the rarefied film universe of what Leonard Maltin called 'National Geographic come to life.' I prefer 'cinematic photo essay' but never mind. Baraka (a Sufi word for 'blessing', 'the essence of life' and a hundred other synonyms) is 96 minutes long and completely wordless. It's simply a series of images, some majestic, many eerily intimate, shot in 24 countries around the world. A solemn score, taken from several musical styles, backs the whole thing up. The subject: Human beings and their complicated relationship with the planet and what might be waiting for us when we leave it.
Director Ron Fricke may be the only filmmaker alive who has done this sort of thing twice. He served as cinematographer on 1983's Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for 'a way of living that demands a new way of living'), Baraka's older sibling in this small cinematic family. In that film, director Godfrey Reggio pioneered the use of image, score, and no dialogue in a documentary context and set the visual blueprint for a sequel Powaqqatsi (1988) and later, Baraka. Koyaanisqatsi's score was a musical prophecy and turned its young composer, Phillip Glass, into a star. Its linear vision of man marching through evolution toward his own destruction won the hearts of self-righteous film geeks, including this one, the world over.
Baraka's movements are harder to track. Fricke and company take us from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to snow monkeys bathing off the coast of Japan, all with seemingly no specific point in mind. His camera (a 70mm job he designed specifically for this film) glides almost imperceptibly and his long, meditative shots are exactly right; Each of Fricke's images are as stunning as a landscape painting yet he holds them long enough for our eyes to scurry about the frame, curious about what we might be missing at the edges and never really getting enough.
Films like this can be downright overwhelming so naturally I left Baraka feeling like my own life of laundry and peanut butter meant much less than that of the snow monkey. The temptation then is to see Baraka as both criticism-proof (who quibbles with sun, stars, and waterfalls?) and more political than it actually is. Sped-up footage of commuters in a Tokyo subway fit the angry environmentalist message of Koyaanisqatsi but seems tacked on here. Mournful shots of homeless families on city streets seem drawn from some other agenda: After all, isn't there the same awesomeness in the tragedy mankind has brought upon itself as there is in the planet's triumphant natural wonders?
Maybe the point's in there, our capacity as humans to wonder, to look up and imagine something greater than ourselves. It's fitting then that Baraka begins with a solar eclipse and ends with rolling star fields, likely primitive man's first hint of the eternal. This incredible journey, around the world only to arrive at what makes us fundamentally human is the gift of Baraka. It's also, as this brilliant jewel of a film reminds, us, the enduring reward of the movies.
The some have bemoaned its cardboard packaging, the Baraka Blu-ray disc is a gorgeous presentation that includes a making-of vignette and a restoration featurette.
Home sweet Taj.