The visual clarity of a DVD, Blu-Ray or whatever format you choose is typically icing on the cake. It can bring out the beauty of the cinematography, but it can't make something out of nothing. Baraka, however, is an exception. Re-mastered in state-of-the-art 8K resolution, this tone poem of a documentary looks more breathtaking than anything I've ever seen in home video. Anyone who has a Blu-Ray player must buy this film, and this film is worth buying a player if you still haven't taken the plunge.
It's appropriate that Baraka is the first recipient of this ultra-high definition transfer, because it above nearly all other films depends on its visuals. Taking a page from Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (the only notable entry of which being Koyaanisqatsi, and even then as much for Phillip Glass' landmark score as anything), director Ron Fricke crafted a series of images without dialogue. There aren't even titles that tell us where we're going next.
I suspect Fricke left out any indication of the wondrous locations he visits because a scrawl at the bottom of the screen would have broken our concentration, even if only for a moment. He does not want to stress to us that he got paid to travel the world. No, by simply juxtaposing images against one another, some clearly linked, others more abstractly, he fashions a touching paean to the beauty of the world, both natural and technological. Its lack of any words save the diegetic chants of religious ceremonies or the bustle of crowded city streets gives it a universal appeal, one that can be shown in a theater in Minnesota at the same time a completely unaltered print plays in Ukraine, or Egypt, or Mexico City or anywhere else.
Fricke actually served as a cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, which nicely prepared him for this lush opus. He had time-lapse cameras custom built for his directorial effort Chronos, but the Todd-AO 65mm cameras he used for this are extraordinary. At least one shot absolutely defies belief: time-lapse and high speed photography make up many of the shots, but one continuous shot of a sped-up worker commute stands out because of how gently and slightly the camera pans while playing the footage at a faster rate. How slowly did they move the camera in real time to achieve the effect?
Other sequences are simply breathtaking. Epic shots of Earth's natural beauty rub up against our most beautiful cultural landmarks. Tribal rituals compare to the rote of assembly line jobs and other aspects of modern life. Fricke intently gazes over an elaborate tattoo covering the torso and back of a Japanese Yakuza member, and he combs over the giant fields of both grounded airplanes and the ancient Terracotta Army. One moment that struck me was a Japanese performer, face caked in white makeup, his eyes rolled back and his face twisted in a horrible silent scream. I had no idea what to make of it, so I went to the Internet and found that a silent scream is exactly what it was: specifically, it was a Butoh dancer interpreting the horror of the Hiroshima bomb. A few sequences later, and a group of female dancers take over to depict the ghostly aftermath.
As magnificent as the visuals are, however, I would be remiss not to mention Michael Stearns' score. Drawing from a number of collaborators, the Baraka score bears little resemblance to Glass' minimalistic masterpiece of a soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi. Stearns takes a different approach: his score blends the diegetic sounds and music into his compositions. High-speed shots of cups loaded by machines down a production line tinker and clang as though each moving cup were a dull bell. An assembly line worker who tests the spinning hard drive of a motherboard in a JVC factory scratches almost like a DJ as he runs his fingers over the device. The music strongly reminded me of the excellent, original music in the otherwise unbearable Dancer in the Dark: in both, the score mingles so well with the images and sounds that the line between diegetic and non-diegetic fades. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a better piece of music than Glass' Koyaanisqatsi, but it certainly serves its film better.
Where Baraka fully leaves Koyaanisqatsi in the dust, however, is in its structure. Both depict the simplicity and vibrancy of "primitive" human life and of nature, along with the rote doldrums of modern civilization. Both contain shots of religious services, natural wonders and man-made marvels. Koyaanisqatsi took these images and arranged them into a not-so-subtle indictment of Western life, all the while playing up the beauty of simple, tribal life as ideal. Baraka certainly contains imagery of boring city life, and of atrocities (Fricke moves through the preserved remains of Auschwitz with haunting, silent tracking shots), but this is simply a tone poem. He juxtaposes Auschwitz with the torture chambers and Killing Fields of Cambodia to prove that horrors do not simply spring out of technological and social advancement. Simply put, Fricke is more concerned with capturing something to speak to the universal human spirit than putting forth an ideology.
And on Blu-Ray, you'll be hard-pressed not to feel something as you see its elegant imagery unfold. At the start of the film, an ape sits in a hot spring in a snowy mountain range in Japan. Steam gently curls around him, and I swear I could have counted every hair on that creature's head. The fires of the Kuwait oil fields ripple and roar silently, and you can make out the flickering effect of the fires from hundreds of feet up and thousands of feet away. As the camera moves along a graffitied wall, I could make out so much of the rough grain of the concrete that I nearly walked up to my TV to run my fingers across the screen to see if it was coarse. As clichéd as it might be, I honestly felt as though I was not watching TV but a window that constantly changed its view.
Baraka is the disc to show to people like me who haven't the foggiest clue what constitutes a good transfer (unless the difference is revelatory, explaining the subtleties of hi-def video or sound to me is like trying to tell me why we're here). It might even appeal to the sort of people who would never sit down to a 97-minute silent piece of abstract art, as its beauty roots you to the spot. Along with Hoop Dreams, When the Levees Broke and The Fog of War, it belongs on the short list of the best documentaries of the last 20 years. But Baraka is more than that: this movie is visual poetry in the truest sense of the word, which is why its enhanced video only makes it more rewarding.