I can’t possibly be the first person to point out the inherent silliness of trying to use words to convey the magic and wonder of the wordlessly eloquent film BARAKA. This film classic from 1992 explores the disconnect between the secular and sacred in the modern world by juxtaposing images of holy places and holy rites with those of a post-industrial society that makes no room for the soul. Carefully constructed of clips filmed in 17 countries and in over 100 locations, there is no better evocation of the heights and depths that humankind can achieve. The film as a whole attains an acute sensibility that defies mere words. This re-release features pristine sound and a dazzling new print, which heightens the experience.
But since it’s my job, let me give it a shot.
My favorite image comes from Japan. It shows a Zen Buddhist monk making his way across a town square. The monk, performing a ritual that permits him to make only one small step at a time, each movement, no matter how small, carefully planned and executed with deliberate slowness. With each step, he is fully in the moment, if not in the world. The hordes swarming around him are anything fully in the world as they zoom to get where they are going, but barely notice where they are, the moment lost to them forever. If the entire film can be distilled into one sequence, that would be it.
Segments are filmed to correspond to their subject matter. There is stop action frenzy for a city that never sleeps. A worshipful image of stars rising over the desert is allowed to move at its own celestial pace, and allows the audience to fall into that pace. The commentary, visual of course, is subtle, after scenes of exquisite stillness in ancient temples and remote mountain tops, an unexpected shot of an airplane flying by a building under construction, complete with the sounds of jet engines is jarring to the core, almost alien. The forms of degradation and exaltation take on astonishingly and disturbingly similar manifestations. Scenes of hapless baby chicks traveling on the endless circles of an egg farms conveyor belts are later echoed in the serene dance of whirling dervishes, whose seamless spinning sends prayers to the infinite. More dark, but no less evocative, are the pyramids of Mexico, the stupas of Angkor Wat that are echoed in the piles of skulls from the killing fields of Cambodia or the heaps of shoes left behind by Jews on their way to the gas chamber.
The soundtrack, from the sounds of those jet engines, to the use of natural sounds and liturgical music makes its own statement. A scene of an orthodox priest celebrating mass is given by the filmmakers a background of chanting from an eastern tradition and the surprise is that it integrates as perfectly as a Gregorian chant would, reverence being universal. Even more surprising is how profound silence itself can be when allowed to wash over us. It only serves to point out that here in a world of MUZAK and WALKMANs and the other omnipresent noise of civilization, how precious silence is, not just for its own inherent beauty, but because it has become so shockingly rare for us here in the First World.
One of the first sequences of BARAKA shows a Macaque monkey sitting in a hot spring. The close up of its face as snow falls lightly on its fur is one that seems to be of profound contemplation, a feeling reinforced as he looks up and a curtain of stars fills the screen. Like the other images in BARAKA, it’s one that provokes speculation about our place in the cosmos. And when was the last time any film did that?