The concept at the heart of MANA: BEYOND BELIEF is defined at the outset of film. A Maori explains the power of objects, both inherent and that with which people imbue them. From the cherry blossoms of Japan that draw avid viewers and drunken, all-night partying to the mystique of a freakishly large tuna.
It begins with an unremarkable is beautifully filmed series of tableaux, familiar and not, of people venerating something greater than they are, be it lighting crystals in a medicine wheel in the American southwest, carving a figure of Buddha and worshipping it via a television screen in Southeast Asia, or a sacrificial chicken meeting its destiny in West Africa. It is reverent, it is respectful, and it is utterly predictable. And then the film veers off into a different direction, challenging expectations of what divinity means and how it is expressed in the modern world.
There is a neat segue from the Shroud of Turin displayed before throngs of varying degrees of adoration, to the careful, even loving care taken by art restorers maintaining masterpieces of Renaissance religion art, to the case of Rembrandt’s “The Man in the Golden Helmet.” For years, said painting of an old soldier, swathed in shadows, peering out at the viewer from beneath the brightly illuminated eponymous helmet, was the pride of the Berlin Museum. People, likened to pilgrims, stood in varying degree of adoration three- and four-deep before where it stood on its plinth, alone, surrounded by velvet curtains, altar-like. Yet, when X-rays and other scientific analysis of the painting revealed it to be not so much a Rembrandt as the product, at best, of someone in his circle, it was relegated to the ignominy and anonymity of a corner of the museum in which it had once help pride of place, barely noticed by the throngs making their way to the currently and commonly accepted example of art with mana.
A commentary on the eternal struggle between science and faith? The fickleness of human tastes, the painting after all is exactly the same. Or perhaps an acerbic slam at the herd instinct with which humankind is afflicted. Hmmm.
That sequence is one of the few that seems to be offering a direct commentary of any kind. The rest is more subtle but unmistakable, a sometimes lyrical, sometimes disturbing, sometimes piquant, and sometimes wacky show-and-tell of what holds sway over the psyche of individuals and groups. Worshipers in Burma gild a sacred rock, a different sort of worshipper polishes his custom car no less reverently, both of which actions bring the supplicant status. Is it a different kind of status? That isn’t addressed, but the question hovers insistently. Ancestors inhabit dancers who are dressed in elaborate sequined costumes, allowing them visit the living and offer advice and admonitions in African rituals. An assortment of Elvises visit Memphis to honor The King in spirit, if not in slavish reproduction of his appearance or sound. A vendor, who chooses to not show his face on camera, displays his wares that include the brain of Woodrow Wilson (documented) and Edgar Allen Poe’s hand (putative). He’s followed by Congressman Howard Coble, who explains how so many flags imbued with the magic of having actually flown over the nation’s capitol are available to hundreds, even thousands, of people who request same. There is a crew whose only job is to raise and to lower flags (all-cotton or a synthetic blend) in quick succession, all day from sunup, pretty much, until sundown.
So you think, so shall it be is the last line of MANA: BEYOND BELIEF. Fitting enough, considering the last object of adoration that the film visits, one that at once is the most outlandish, and yet, the perfect synthesis of all that has come before. It’s a playful, teasing wink to send its audience back to a reality that it will see in a whole new light.