Film review: Baraka

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 8 1994 12:00 a.m. MST

Taking his 70mm camera to 24 countries, cinematographer Ron Fricke has compiled an answer to Godfrey Reggio's "Koyaanisqatsi," on which Fricke was chief cameraman.

That film, whose title is a Hopi word for "Life Out of Balance," contrasted the serene natural wonders of America with its hustling, bustling industry, without narration or plot, using only gorgeously photographed, fleeting images set to a driving, mesmerizing Philip Glass score.

Fricke's "Baraka" — the title, an ancient Sufi word, loosely translates as "The Breath of Life" — is apparently intended to counterbalance Reggio's work, showing how the human race and life itself are tied to the earth.

Borrowing Reggio's style, Fricke expanded this look at the subject, traveling around the world for 14 months, gleaning a series of images that are equally stunning, including a vast array of religious rituals ranging from the Wailing Wall to whirling dervishes.

Ironically, many moments in Fricke's film actually seem to take Reggio's point of view, illustrating contrasts between such natural wonders as racing waterfalls, gentle clouds or animals roaming free in the jungle with the oil fires in Kuwait, burning landfills in Calcutta and the remains of human incinerators at Auschwitz.

The result is somewhat disconcerting, especially since such visuals as chicks being tossed about in a poultry assembly line and time-lapse photography through a window of a busy Manhattan street are, in their own ways, as fascinating and beautifully conceived as six hours of roiling clouds over Utah's Can-yon-lands National Park, shown to us in a mere 30 seconds.

Even more problematic in "Baraka" is the music by Michael Stearns, which never quite develops the hypnotic power of Philip Glass' "Koyaanisqatsi" score. Stearns instead chooses a new age approach, which blends ethnic phrasing and deep resonance with redundant themes that are not as compelling as they should be.

And audiences may be somewhat annoyed to find that none of the locations are identified as they come up on the screen, though a long end-credits crawl does tell us where the film was shot. That's part of the point, of course — that all of this diversity in the world is connected, and that it's sometimes hard to tell one place from another, despite obvious differences.

There are moments in "Baraka" when Fricke shamelessly manipulates our collective conscience in a way not unlike those ads on television that show pained faces of children living in squalor. Here, the most devastating example has South American children searching for food in mounds of smoking garbage. And there are haunting moments, as when we fly over an Arizona airplane graveyard, where hundreds of B-52 bombers appear to have landed in a huge, bizarre parking lot. And still others take on a comic resonance (intended or not), as when we see thousands of people entering and leaving a subway station in time-lapse rapidity.

The result of all of this is sweeping, jarring and mesmerizing — not to mention mind-blowing, if I may indulge a '60s phrase. There is inherent power that comes from the realization that this is indeed a wild and crazy world we live in, with beauty and horror in all its extreme diversity.

For that reason alone, Fricke's work deserves to be seen and hailed as a seriously successful companion piece to "Koyaan-isqatsi." On its own, however, "Baraka" stands as a monumental achievement, whatever its flaws.

Though unrated, "Baraka" would probably receive a PG for occasional disturbing imagery.