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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> December 2001 >> Baraka


Movie Commentary by Scott Ventura


Scott's Rating:
1 / 5
Times Seen:
Viewing Date:
December 2001
IMDB Name:
Baraka (1992)
Ron Fricke
MPAA Rating:


Baraka is a photographer's attempt at a movie. Ron Fricke wanted to capture spectacular footage using high-quality 70mm film stock. He even went so far as to help develop some new equipment that would allow time-lapse photography to have a moving camera. A similar technology is used by clay animators for films like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Indeed, Baraka has some formidably beautiful sights gathered over a year from all over the world. A scene of birds swimming on a surface of water takes on a magical appearance because the reflection of the sky on the water looks so good that the birds appear to float. Waterfalls, ruins, and clouds all get deluxe cinematographic treatment.

Fricke wanted to convey man's interaction with the immortal. I only know this because I saw the behind-the-scenes thing after I finished watching the film proper. While Baraka certainly succeeds in having high-quality photography, it fails in delivering any kind of message. Fricke travelled to twenty-four countries to create a film that teaches almost nothing. Fricke filmed nature, religious ceremonies, day-to-day living, factory work, and places of worship, but never in a way that imparts any knowledge. This is especially frustrating because the movie frequently acts like it's about to go somewhere meaningful, but never does. Shot after shot after shot, cohesion always feels just seconds away, but never arrives. Some of the visuals are absolutely meaningless, and trying to piece them together is a headache in the making. As if that isn't bad enough, the movie doesn't even have a good sense of pacing. The cycle of tension and relief is sorely lacking.

Respecting Elders

Some viewers, if the reviewers on the IMDB are to be believed, come away feeling as though they've seen something profound. I am forced to conclude that they haven't seen the paragon of non-narrative films, Koyaanisqatsi. Ron Fricke served as the cinematographer for this Godfrey Reggio masterpiece, but it seems he didn't take much away from the experience. Plenty of shots in Baraka are direct steals from Koyaanisqatsi, but without the impact or effectiveness. The best part of Baraka feels remarkably like "The Grid" and incorporates similar visuals, but the details are subtly wrong. A clock features prominently in one of the time-lapse segments, diminishing the astonishment at the bustle implied by the sped-up film. Humans filmed in slow motion framed as portraits are present in both films, but the people in Baraka aren't nearly as intuitively interesting.

Baraka also falls dramatically short on scoring. Micheal Stearns is no Philip Glass, and the fusion, in spite of the border bending, feels too grounded in specific cultures. I doubt that any music could conceal Baraka's other shortcomings, but the gratuitous attempts to include all the globe's sounds and still be New Agey feel as hollow as the rest of the movie. Glass gave Koyaanisqatsi a tremendous push with his layered rhythms of winds, voices, and strings. Stearns leans too heavily on percussion, and frequently uses climactic crescendi that are entirely out of place given the failure of the visuals to provide a climax at the same time.

Baraka's choice of material is disquieting. I constantly felt that Fricke and company were exploiting their subjects. We are shown unfamiliar things without any explanation, and can do little more than gawk at the foreigners. Koyaanisqatsi consistently found new ways to show us the familiar and turn it into something entirely other. More importantly, Koyaanisqatsi's techniques were unique to film, and could not be duplicated just by visiting the site. Baraka, almost without exception, plays like a travelogue and has little feeling for what needs to be done to make its footage exceptional beyond the inconvenience of actually going to the location. Fricke had the ability to move the camera during a time-lapse shot, but didn't exercise good judgment on when this would enhance he shot and when it would be distracting. The night skies, in particular, especially with no frame of reference, are no more exciting when seen spinning because the camera is moving versus condensing the rotation of the planet.

Truth in Criticism

One shot of people going up escalators had a terrific visual novelty. Each person seemed to be leaving echoes behind them as they shot up the screen. This gave the impression that the movement was so frenetic that things appeared in more than one place at a time.

DVD Comments

I observed one bit of programming incompetence on the Baraka DVD. The movie has a 5.1 audio track and a 2.0 audio track. Having only a 2.0 setup, I selected that and watched the movie. The movie allows switching of audio tracks while watching. The disc also contains an eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette which has two audio tracks, a 5.1 and a 2.0. When I started watching the behind-the-scenes segment, there was no audio. The player was still set to the 2.0 audio track, which existed, but there as no audio on the track! More troubling, the disc doesn't allow changing the audio track while watching the featurette! I had to go back through the menus to change to the 5.1 audio and then try the featurette again. If the extra had only come with one audio selection, the player would've automatically switched to it.

See the IMDB information on Baraka's DVD or compare prices at DVD Price Search.

Copyright 2001-2002 by Scott Ventura. All rights reserved.