It's nearly impossible to describe 'Baraka' without comparing it to the 1982 visual arts landmark 'Koyaanisqatsi'. In that earlier film, director Godfrey Reggio created a whole new cinematic subgenre that was neither narrative fiction nor documentary. His movie was a wordless montage of images photographed around the world, played to stirring music and edited into a sublime piece of visual poetry chronicling the conflict between man and nature. Although Reggio's preachiness often got the better of him, the innovation and artistic accomplishments of the film were simply dazzling.
After 'Koyaanisqatsi', Reggio and his cinematographer Ron Fricke parted company, each continuing to work on separate projects in the same vein. Unfortunately, Reggio's follow-ups 'Powaqqatsi', 'Anima Mundi', and 'Naqoyqatsi' became progressively preachier (primitive world good, modern world bad) and frankly tedious. Meanwhile, Fricke developed the IMAX production 'Chronos' and the 70mm extravaganza 'Baraka'. While both owe an obvious debt to 'Koyaanisqatsi', with which they share the same basic concept and structure, Fricke quietly yet successfully refined the formula, paring away much of the didactic preachiness. 'Baraka' not only has the most exceptional photography of the group, it arguably surpasses even 'Koyaanisqatsi' to become the best example of this particular subgenre.
'Baraka' was photographed in stunning 70mm in 24 different countries. The film captures images rarely seen by Western audiences, from a Pygmy funeral ritual to the glittering mirrored interior of a mosque in Iran. The primary theme is spirituality. We visit a Tibetan monastery, and Mecca during the Hajj. We witness a Buddhist monk in deep meditation advancing through the crowded streets of modern Tokyo. The locations are intercut with the music and not identified, emphasizing the vast diversity of the world, yet underlined with the knowledge that everything is unified and interconnected.
The movie features some harmless nudity of the 'National Geographic' variety. However, it also has some disturbing imagery. There are stops at the ruins of Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia. We see children living in poverty in the favelas of Brazil, attend a funeral pyre (with real corpses) on the Ganges River, and watch the Kuwaiti oil fires burning uncontrollably during the first Gulf War. The film encompasses both the greatness and awfulness of the modern world. There are a few preachy moments, but by and large 'Baraka' is a celebration of both man's accomplishments and the pristine beauty of the untouched world, and the necessary balance between the two we must strike.
What the film lacks is music by Philip Glass, whose scores for the 'Qatsi' pictures were so indelibly memorable. Michael Stearns provides the music here. It's an effective score, but a touch New Age-y for my taste. Despite countless viewings of the movie, not a single of his themes has ever stuck with me.
Nonetheless, 'Baraka' has moments of extraordinary emotional power, such as a stream of images about poverty played to "The Host of Seraphim" by Dead Can Dance, the amazing time-lapse montages of urban movement, and the celestial fireworks at the end. This is truly an exceptional work of filmmaking.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Baraka' comes to Blu-ray from MPI Home Video. The disc is packaged in a flimsy cardboard box claiming to be "100% Recyclable." I suppose that's meant to tie into the movie's environmental theme, but what it really screams is cheap and disposable. The copy used for this review had already developed a serious ugly crease along the upper spine by the time it got here. Inside, the disc slides into a rough cardboard sleeve with no hub or protection from scratching.
This is MPI's third attempt to do justice to the beautiful 70mm visuals of 'Baraka' on home video. An early DVD released back in 2000 recycled an old non-anamorphic laserdisc transfer. A later Special Collector's Edition DVD sported an anamorphic widescreen remaster that was less disappointing, but still seemed a little soft and flat. For their latest go-round, MPI retransferred the 70mm film elements from an "8K UltraDigital HD" scan that was designed to draw out more detail from the photography before downsampling the results to regular HD resolution. The outcome is quite impressive.
The 1080p/VC-1 transfer is framed at the original 2.20:1 aspect ratio of its 70mm source. The image is very sharp and detailed, often breathtakingly so. Even the widest of master shots exhibit a tremendous clarity throughout the frame. Facial expressions can be read on individuals within a huge crowd. Colors are vivid, yet always natural, without looking digitally manipulated. Some light film grain is present, but the 70mm format is fine-grained by nature so the grain is rarely noticeable and not at all distracting. Shadow detail in dark parts of the frame is well rendered, though the black levels rarely achieve an inky depth. The contrast as a whole is just a little flat, but that's possibly inherent to the photography and not a serious complaint.
Holding the disc just a bit back from perfection is the presence of some minor edge ringing. It's not a constant problem, but does recur regularly enough to be distracting. I also have to say that, as impressive as the High-Def transfer may be in most respects, it still doesn't hold a candle to the original 70mm theatrical release.
The movie's soundtrack is almost entirely music and ambient environmental sounds. There is no dialogue at all. The disc packaging claims that the audio was "digitally restored and remixed @ 96k/24-bits by Michael Stearns." MPI offers the soundtrack in either standard Dolby Digital 5.1 or lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 formats. The lossless track is incredibly spacious and enveloping. It fills the room with a broad front soundstage and quite a bit of surround activity. Subtle auditory details in the music are resolved with clarity and precision. The music is deep and resonant.
My only complaint is that the pan flute used at the beginning of the movie (and a few places later as well) distorts at the high end. This was also a problem with the earlier Special Collector's Edition DVD. Given that the Blu-ray's audio was supervised by the movie's composer, I'd be inclined to assume that the issue is a limitation of the original recording. However, the old laserdisc edition had a stereo PCM track without any distortion at the same places, leaving me to believe that the new remaster's levels are too hot. Fortunately, this isn't really noticeable anywhere except during the pan flute.
The Blu-ray shares all of its bonus features with the simultaneous 2-Disc Special Edition DVD.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no Blu-ray exclusives. I consider this a missed opportunity to provide some interesting interactive supplements like the "Annotations" feature found on the 'Chronos' Blu-ray, which identified the filming locations of each shot as the movie played. I would love to have something like that for 'Baraka' as well.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The prior Special Collector's Edition DVD contained a 7-minute EPK featurette about the making of the movie. Believe me, it's not a big loss. It revealed no info that can't be found in the superior documentary on this disc. That said, the DVD also included a fold-out map to the filming locations of the movie, and that was fairly useful.
'Baraka' is a fascinating piece of visual art. The Blu-ray has exceptional video and audio, as well as a very informative documentary. Highly recommended.