Jan 8, 2003 at 12:00 am

Steam rises from water surrounded by snow; a monkey, with gray fur, a red face and old deep-set eyes sits on the verge of sleep. A throng of shirtless men with rotting teeth shouts a harsh mechanical chant and shakes their hands in unison. Clouds slide and swim around the tip of a mountain overlooking a grand canyon.

Baraka (an ancient Sufi word meaning the “essence of life from which the evolutionary process unfolds”), begins like a National Geographic tour. It suffuses the screen with the wonders of nature — Hawaiian lava, a solar eclipse — and a succession of cryptic spiritual rituals from around the globe, such as cloaked women waiting their turn to kiss a silver lock.

Director Ron Fricke’s 1992-released film is a vacation from dialogue and narrative, traveling strictly on imagery anywhere from aborigines to whirling dervishes to Indonesian factories, accompanied by the pleasing hypnotic sounds of Michael Stern, Dead Can Dance and on-site recordings of the monks of the Dip Tse Chok Ling monastery.

Not only is Baraka filmed in the same style as Koyaanisqatsi (1983, the Hopi word for “life out of balance”), a film Fricke worked on as cinematographer, it follows the same blueprint. Both use breathtaking cinematography and time-lapse photography in lieu of words and ideas, and both visually connect the wild patterns of the earth to the patterns of primitive and civilized man, ultimately pointing a finger at the absurd deadliness of modern civilization to nature and spirit.

But also like a vacation — without a distinct purpose, practical goal and all but nonexistent structure — Baraka gets old before the 93 minutes are up. The heavy-handed coupling of images doesn’t help. After a shot of slum-condition cardboard apartments stacked on top of each other, we see mausoleum coffin slots, one on top of the other. Following sped-up people in mass transit, we see compassionless hands tossing tiny yellow chicks onto conveyer belts, ultimately ending up as chickens in their lifelong box homes.

Although there may have been a time and place for films like Koyaanisqatsi, are they relevant today? What’s the point of infusing people with a longing for a more natural way of life that most of us moviegoers are not equipped to go back to? If Baraka succeeds in making us re-evaluate and regret our civilized throwaway existence (granted, in a beautiful way), it only ends up creating as much real-life dissatisfaction as any formulaic Hollywood film with a less-than-realistic “we’re all happy now” ending.


Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].