Baraka (US - BD RA)
Gabe goes swimming in hi-def video photography from around the world...
How does one discuss something like Baraka? I suppose I should start describing what exactly Baraka is. This isn’t so much a movie in the largely accepted form of the word, but a collection of images and sounds that create an emotional response in the viewer without any plot or dialogue. It’s not a travel log or a documentary, but a tone poem on film. The idea behind Chronos specifically is to create largely the same response in every viewer—that of the realization of both the largeness and smallness of our world—but the filmmakers depend their viewer’s personal prisms to sculpt this view. There are a few other films one could put in this small subgenre, including Godfrey Reggio’s ‘Life Trilogy’ ( Koyaanisqatsi, Powwaqatsi and Naqoyqatsi), and the time-lapse-errific Chronos.
Baraka is likely the best film of its kind (I haven’t seen Powwaqatsi and Naqoyqatsi myself), and likely the most accessible to broad audiences that normally ignore art films. The film’s very existence is a sort of pretentious act, as the filmmakers are forced to follow their own feelings concerning the feelings of others, but the film rarely comes off as snobbish or overly self-indulgent. The images themselves have been edited and juxtaposed at the behest of a few people, but there’s an inescapable honesty to everything on screen. Unlike Chronos (which the filmmakers refer to as Baraka-lite in the making-of feature), Baraka actually manages to tell a story without words, a story that I believe even the least studious cineaste can decipher without being told.
Baraka is filmmaking in its purest form, and its utter simplicity will test some viewers. Keeping the runtime close to ninety minutes is a good choice, because there’s a definite limit to how much narrative free, art house filmmaking the majority of us can take. The filmmakers plan backfires a little bit in its mesmerizing effect sometimes, numbing the viewer into near exhaustion. I admit to some very heavy eyelids around the one hour mark, no matter how much I may’ve been enjoying myself.
Since the dawn of enhanced and high definition television, stores have displayed the sets’ abilities using nature photography. Usually there are a few sets with sports of some large budget effects film running, but for the most part it seems that nature photography is the default ‘look at me’ footage. With images of Best Buy and Circuit City TV departments in my mind I assumed that Baraka would be a reference Blu-ray disc before even sticking it in the player. The film’s advantages begin with its 65mm negative, which can be scanned at 8K resolution, which is apparently the highest available in the world right now. The print has been ‘over sampled’ beyond the capabilities of a 1080p scan, meaning that the image will press any set beyond its limit. Basically the film looks so good that it supersedes high definition.
The numbers don’t lie; this is simply the cleanest non-digital film I’ve ever seen on my set. There isn’t a spec of dust, grain, or compression noise to be found. The lifelike quality of the image comes as a shock even after months of big studio hi-def discs. The saturated colour quality and super fine details are second to nothing live-action I’ve seen so far. The closest I can get to finding a fault with the print is a small amount of over-modulation on some of the harder white details in backgrounds, basically amounting to the slightest bit of edge-enhancement in some of the longest shots, though likely this has more to do with my aging set’s limitations than the source material. Those in search of that reference material to show off their sets try chapter seven (Kenyan tribal slo-mo dance), chapter ten (Brazilian cityscape), chapter thirteen (sorting baby chickens), and chapter twenty-one (Iranian mirrored mosque).
If anyone dates Baraka (besides the burning Kuwaiti oil fields) it’s composer and music director Michael Stearns, who’s soundscapes, though perfectly acceptable within the odd confines of the film itself, are packed with the nuances of ‘90s New Age. This new DTS-HD Master Audio track picks up every nuance of the soundtrack, from the dissonance of swirling bells to the studious clunk of a drum. The film’s supernatural editing is mostly weighted in this soundtrack, and both work best during the bizarre chicken sorting montage. The percussion tracks are tightly wound, and move impressively throughout all channels without drawing too much attention to themselves. The Dead Can Dance track (which was recently re-used by Frank Darabount at the end of The Mist) is inescapably emotionally overwhelming, and the aggressive bass track is at its most prominent at this point (just before chapter fifteen, if you’re looking).
Beyond the music there are some huge, reference level sound moments, which is enormously impressive when you stop to think about the difficulty of creating believable and immersive surround from on-set recordings. Crowd shots are the most inspiring, but the best bit is the Southeast Asian group chant scene (I don’t know what the ceremony is called). What amounted to a wall of sound on the original DVD release is now a lifelike immersion of dozens of shouting voices bleeding from every speaker, a chest rattling throb emitting from the LFE channel, and a subtly modulating intensity as the camera’s swoop and move through the crowd. This track isn’t quite as loud as other DTS-HD tracks I’ve run on this system, but there aren’t any moments of obvious or even subtle compression.
This isn’t exactly a special edition release, but save a commentary track there probably isn’t much more for the viewer to learn. ‘Baraka: A Closer Look’ is a detailed making-of documentary covering the genesis and production of the film one step at a time. Besides chronicling the huge process and the production behind almost every vignette, the doc also humanizes the filmmakers, who until now have been largely hidden behind the mystique of the wordless feature. I suppose I could’ve just looked it up, but until now I hadn’t realized that Baraka’s director/cinematographer Ron Fricke had worked as cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, and director/cinematographer on Chronos, making him one of the chief architects of the subgenre. The hour and seventeen minute doc (almost as long as the film itself) doesn’t go too far into the philosophy behind the film, because thankfully there doesn’t seem to be much of one beyond the back of the box thesis of ‘the thread that weaves life together’, but there’s a lot of technical information, including the creation of the apparently revolutionary time-lapse cameras.
‘Restoration’ sort of speaks for itself—it’s a chronicle of the meticulous hi-def remastering process. There’s a whole lot of very specific technical information about the restoration process, and it’s presented in plainly discernable terms for all us laymen. If the seven minute featurette is to be believed this is a one of kind remastering process at this point in time considering scope and sheer quantity of detail.
Baraka is a unique experience that you’ll likely want to experience in high definition. In fact, it’s such an extremely impressive hi-def experience that even readers generally disinterested in artsy tone poems might want to give the disc a rent and give their sets a nice workout. The DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t so bad either. Neither is the feature length making-of documentary. In fact, just buy the disc, it’s cheap enough, and the box is made out of entirely recyclable material so you don’t have to feel guilty about owning more stuff.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 28th October 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1
Extras: A Closer Look, Restoration
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ron Fricke
Length: 97 minutes
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