I find it difficult to answer the question “What is your favorite movie?” but not because I don’t have one. I don’t have a favorite color, or even one favorite food, but I do have a favorite movie — except it’s not really a movie. Sort of.
The reason it’s a tricky question to answer is because this particular movie, although it is feature length, has no characters, no dialogue, and no real narrative of any kind.
I’m talking of course of Ron Fricke’s 1992 audiovisual epic Baraka, the opening of which is included above.
The film opens in the vastness of the Himalayas — the ancient earth, out of which the “human story” emerges — before cutting to Japan, where snow monkeys bathe in an open-air onsen, just as humans do, and seem to enjoy it just as much.
The camera focuses on one monkey, who is drowsy from the hot water, and just as it closes its eyes, the screen cuts to footage of an eclipse (and thence the title sequence), as if the monkey is dreaming all that follows.
There is of course no single correct interpretation of the film, but I always took that to be symbolic of mankind’s awakening, which is of course a good place to start a movie about our species.
Through the remaining 90-some minutes, the viewer is shown a series of “arcs,” for lack of a better term, that touch on almost every aspect of humanity, both good and bad.
Everything about the film is exceptional, from the composition to the cinematography to the soundtrack, which is how I first discovered it (back in the days before everything you ever wanted to find was on the internet). I owned a CD of the soundtrack for several years before I finally saw the film at a special screening in college.
Shot in wide 70mm film, it’s sort of the OG hi-def, equivalent at least to 8k ultra-high definition, to which it has since been converted. Even in an era inundated with high definition images, it’s still breathtaking.
The title track, which was remixed, along with the rest of the music, by ambient music legend Michael Stearns, is “Hon Shirabe,” a piece of classical music for the shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute, one of the basic instruments of Japanese classical music (along with the shamisen, koto, and drums).
The name “Hon Shirabe” translates roughly as “basic melody,” and it encapsulates the basic skills and philosophy of shakuhachi playing. Almost any student will be required to master it at some point. Unlike most Western music, however, students of this piece are encouraged to play it as quietly as possible.
Here is Kohachiro Miyata’s album “Shakuhachi,” which opens with the same piece (without the remix), for those interested to hear more.