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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
I've Been to the Mountaintop
by Donald Levit

Dedicated four centuries ago to Hindu goddess Parvati-incarnation Bhagwati, Manakamana Mandir is among Nepal’s holiest temples. Pilgrims and some tourists have multiplied since a 1998 Austrian cable car system eased the precipitous eleven-mile several-day climb to a motorized ten minutes each way. Made up entirely of eleven ten-plus-minute shots, each the duration of a magazine of 16mm film, Manakamana records these journeys, some up, some down, including one in the carriage for sacrificial goats.

As with companion non-fictions from the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, there is no spoken or printed narration frame, and it is not until fairly into the two minutes shy of two hours that the eerie human silence is broken by sudden subtitled conversation. On one later journey, an American woman speaks English with her Nepali friend, but only after long awkward wordlessness between them, while the nervous goats bleat during theirs.

Directors and editors Stephanie Spray (also sound and subtitle translations) and Pacho Velez’ (DP) camera-sound recorder is there, too, unseen by the audience, in the cars suspended on single fragile-looking elbow-joints. The same pattern holds for the Lab’s earlier Sweetgrass and Leviathan, documenting respectively the austere, disappearing drives of sheepherders to Montana grazing and then on to town pens, and the ear-splitting mechanical workings of a fishing vessel, the activities of its crew, and the sea creatures it harvests. There is little talk in the former, and, until the very end, none in the latter.

In this newest sort of social studies film, the cable-car riders are in some cases stone silent, either solitary arranging floral offerings or else comfortable with fellow passengers -- one finally talky lady reveals that she is deaf, anyway -- even though perhaps spooking the cinema viewer. Others engage in small talk, about villages below, recent changes on the terraced slopes, corn crops, or their ears popping or ice cream popsicles melting onto wrists and clothing. Three young rock-band members with a kitten chatter to cover nervousness on the scary ascent, while two older minstrels tune their four-stringed sarangi before practicing what initially strikes the ear as atonal but soon grows catchy and strangely familiar.

Speech silence is interrupted as the cars pass single or triple pylons or other cars moving in the opposite direction. At each journey’s end, the abrupt pitch darkness is the docking station, at which the camera eye pans right to another trip about to begin.

It is difficult to tell whether any particular sequence is going up or down, as green landscape, trees and fields are passed by and Himalayan peaks fade into mist or grey-white distance. This natural background is framed in the glass window that makes it look like a 3D backdrop against which the passengers are superimposed. There is thus a dual plane of interest, related yet separate: the human animal transitory and traveling, as against the lasting and motionless.

This may be a watch beyond the staying power of most in the new normal Attention Deficit Disorder Western cultures. At the Toronto International Film Festival and “both literally and figuratively transporting” in the Lincoln Center 2013 New York Film Festival “Motion Portraits,” co-presented with ”Views from the Avant-Garde,” and now in its “Art of the Real” series, Manakamana will, however, reward those lucky few who still possess the patient tranquility to observe and absorb which is being so sadly lost.

(Released by Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)

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