A review requested by Jakob G, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It's a bad habit to compare one film to another and count that as a review, but oh, how hard it is to talk about Baraka without constantly checking it against Koyaanisqatsi. The two films, released in 1992 and 1982, respectively, are doing a lot of the same things, and in a couple of cases doing the same thing in the same way. They also share a primary creative mind in Ron Fricke, who helped write and edit Koyaanisqatsi and was the lead cinematographer, before taking all his accumulated wisdom in hand to do all the same things in Baraka, in addition to directing. Frankly, Baraka is probably closer in spirit and technique to Koyaanisqatsi than either of that film's official sequels, Powaqqatsi, (which came out before Baraka, in 1988) and Naqoyqatsi (which came out in 2002, and which is by a pretty robust margin the worst of the four films I've so far named). They are films that clarify one another, after a fashion: it is easier to see how each of them works by reference to the things that the other one isn't doing.

And anyway, the reason that this isn't fair is because one of the things Baraka doesn't do is to haul up Philip Glass to write an original score, and if there's one overriding reason why it's simply not as good as its predecessor/model, that's the music. Not that there's any real problem with Michael Stearns's original compositions, which serve exactly the function that they are meant to serve, of providing a relaxing ambient blanket that stitches together the source music pulled from traditional folk music from around the world. And those are a bit of a problem. Baraka, described in the broadest imaginable terms, is a tour of various places in the world, stopping to pay attention to the spiritual practices there. The soundtrack, in a rather leaden and over-deliberate way, reinforces those places by dialing up some fairly trite and at times, outright tacky "ethnic music" clichรฉs. It gives the film a bland, touristy feeling that it doesn't deserve, and runs the risk of cheapening what's otherwise an admirable project delving into the metaphysical philosophy of many different world cultures.

That's what the whole film is about, in fact: the very title "baraka" is derived from a word that in Sufism (Islamic mysticism) refers to the presence of God's goodness. Baraka isn't a specifically Islamic film, and in fact Islam, like Christianity, is notable in the film mostly for its conspicuous absence. It's also not only a film about religious and spiritual behavior, though this is what the film leads with, and it is what hangs most heavily over the bulk of its running time. It rather transparently wants to be about everything, but mostly ends up settling on roughly the same message as Koyaanisqatsi: there is a slowness to traditional forms of life that is beautiful and spiritually resonant, and there is a madness to contemporary life in the industrialised countries that is slowly murdering those of us who live there. This is expressed in part by fast-motion footage of computer boards being built, which is also roughly the same as Koyaanisqatsi, but comparatively, Baraka is much more interested in traditional spiritual practice and includes the swipe against modernism mostly from an apparent sense of inertia. Having a message simply isn't something it's interested in, not entirely to its benefit - if it thought a bit harder about having a message, maybe it wouldn't have opened itself so readily to criticism for its implied "people in the Third World have more of a connection to the earth, man" themes.

But while that's annoying, it's really only a little thing in the grand scheme. And the grand scheme, with Baraka, is awfully grand indeed. Upon its 1992 release, the film became the first production in 21 years to use the Todd-AO widescreen process, which existed in effect to squeeze every drop of resolution out of a 70mm release print possible. It is not worth belaboring what, exactly that means, except insofar as it has a very distinctive effect: namely, that Baraka is among the most overwhelmingly gorgeous films ever made. If it is, ultimately, a tourist video writ large, it is a literally monumental one. During the 14-month shoot, Fricke and his crew captured all sorts of amazing locations in 24 different countries on every continent save for Antarctica, and while often this results in pure landscape photography, even that's like nothing that I've ever seen in any other movie. The richness of colors and the vastness of the frame are enough to make each and every shot of the movie look like a classical painting done on the grandest scale (I have only ever seen the film on various televisions, but the television doesn't exist that could do the proper justice to Baraka's enormous vistas). And anyway, landscapes aren't really all that important a part of the whole: much more of the film depicts human-built spaces, and the humans within them. They're not always human-sized spaces: often, the mismatch between the people in the frame and the giant structures they're surrounded by drives much of the film's impact, be it the awe-inspiring mass of bodies waving back and forth in the courtyard of a jungle temple, or the dehumanising scale of downtown New York City, this film's emblem of the busy, hectic, spiritually empty modern world.

But sometimes they are very much indeed human-scale shots. Even at the very beginning, the film "telescopes" from mountains down to a solitary hot spring where a profoundly thoughtful-looking monkey attempts to ignore the camera, while the editing implies that it's having a vision of the entire cosmos. And this if of course the point of the film's grandeur: Baraka suggests, in a singularly passionate and uncynical way, that the universe is bigger than we have the capacity to appreciate, and it is our attempt to appreciate it that we call "religion". If blowing the audience's mind with gigantic images of real-life spectacle is how Fricke can best put that over, then good for him.

It is, accordingly, a film that is intuitive and emotionally resonant rather than intellectually rigorous. The editing very much joins things together in ways that are either shocking and therefore telling (like that monkey and the whole of creation), or more often, in ways that stress commonality: linking different religious ceremonies or everyday moments based on how they echo with other moments, and thereby sketching out the shared humanity that allows a child in Indonesia to inhabit the world in much the same was an adult in Africa; to examine how Ecuadorian villagers are driven by the same impulses as city dwellers in India.

It's not a theme that Baraka invented, Lord knows, but the film does an uncommonly good job teasing it out. And if without that, the film remains a splendid sensory experience, with more striking images in its 96 minutes than pretty much anything else I can name - certainly too many to start listing them or attempting to explain how they "work", since they work in all kinds of different ways (I am, however, particularly fond of the shot of birds on a flat lake, perfectly reflecting the clouds and sky above, a vivid literalisation of heaven coming down to earth). Overall, they turn Baraka into an experience that's closer to guided meditation than film viewing, and while the film has some limitations, clichรฉs, and missteps, the meditation is damn near beyond reproach.