Manakamana gives patient and thoughtful viewers a lyrical, quiet, hypnotic, and inviting open reading of seemingly mundane trips amid the Nepalese mountains. That’s all aims to be and it doesn’t need to work hard to succeed. It’s a locked off, static 16mm camera that films passengers inside of a cable car as they make their way up or down on their way to or from the titular temple. There’s a bit with a cat, there’s a goat, there’s a rock band, there are families, friends, etc.
Now for those who expect films to pay off with immediate gratification, the latest film from the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab will be pure poison. This isn’t a film made for those people. It’s a film that caters to the analytical mind instead of one that wants to tell a story for the viewer. Directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez want the viewer to create their own stories, sometimes from people who don’t speak a word to each other and everything has to be inferred from body language and appearance. It’s people watching in the purest form in an exotic location without ever having to leave town to do it. It’s the kind of thing I love to do, but I’ll readily admit that about 90% of the filmgoing public will have a massive problem with this if they have to pay money for it.
Having said this, Manakamana doesn’t necessarily disappoint me, but considering how strong and immediate the Ethnographic Lab’s previous films were (including the bracing and enthralling look at commercial fishing in Leviathan or the look at shepherding in Montana, Sweetgrass) Spray and Velez’s work here feels a bit less vital, but no less beautiful. It’s certainly not the place to start for those who aren’t accustomed to the work of the Lab. It’s probably the most challenging feature length effort from them yet, but there’s plenty of fun and reflection to be had for those willing to literally take the same journey several times over.
Even those who can find themselves on the film’s wavelength will probably have different analyses of what each pilgrimage means. It can be viewed as a cinematic examination of human behaviour or as a gambit of old school choose-your-own-adventure story telling. It takes about a trip or two to get acclimated to the surroundings, but once viewers find their footing they might be surprised by what they see.
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