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MANA—beyond belief

(2005) *** Unrated
92 min. Strange Attractions.

Mana—a Polynesian word for the "authority and prestige," the powerful force, found not only in people but in objects. For their documentary MANA—beyond belief, filmmakers Peter Friedman & Roger Manley lugged high-definition camera equipment around five continents over a year's time, and returned with 150 hours of footage. The results are compelling, even mesmerizing, and, at times, amusing or contemplative. At divergent points in the film, viewers will find themselves brought around to their own personal and fundamental questions of belief.

Is acknowledgement of shared existence in itself a leap of faith? What do we believe in, and is it just as arbitrary as any other faith-based conviction? With a minimum of commentary, Friedman and Manley try to let demonstrations of belief speak for themselves, in aural and visual terms. The filmmakers' gambit to severely limit explanatory interviews and forego narration entirely lends the film a rare, mystical quality, but the self-imposed guideline is erratically applied.

Talking heads clarify a perceptual shift regarding a once-treasured painting in the Berlin Museum, a North Carolina congressman waxes about the significance of flags, and a New Mexican car enthusiast explains the love of the low-rider: "That's our identity. That's what we're into." Yet an African voodoo event, a Navajo crystal-gazing ceremony, a Malaysian memorial bonfire, and an observation of worship at the Golden Boulder in Myanmar lack straight-forward accounting, or even a title indicating where we are. The verbalized West versus exoticized East pattern pervades.

For that matter, Friedman and Manley occasionally can't resist highlighting absurdities. They round off a sequence showing the Hindu blessing of a computer with an insert of a mouse-clicking computer simulation of a Hindu blessing. Very post-modern, but I suspect misleading in the context of the sequence. The final sequence layers Also Sprach Zarathustra and '50s sound effects over the appearance of a "magnetic lightning force beam" called the Forevertron, the better to archly indicate its absurdity for a chuckle. Worst of all, an anonymous "body parts dealer" turns out to be an actor performing a monologue based on a Gregory Whitehead interview piece, but you wouldn't know that if you didn't stay for the last rows of the credits.

Still, though my preference would run to clearer contexts, MANA—beyond belief does its job as a provocative piece, a prism with unlimited possible reactions, due to its generally uncritical presentation of global sights and sounds. It is designed to wash over the viewer and invite reflection, and any viewer who fails to respond to that invitation must surely be unconscious. The medium is also the message: the film itself has mana, offering "a gateway into a whole realm of knowledge," material and spiritual.

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