The camera-wielding researchers at Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, an eccentric team responsible for experimental documentaries like last year's groundbreaking fishing-boat portrait "Leviathan" and the shepherd-focused "Sweetgrass," typically refuse to identify as "filmmakers" in the traditional sense of the word. The group's latest effort, the startlingly unique viewing experience "Manakamana," provides the best case for that claim. Shot with a static camera exclusively within the confines of a cable car as it travels up and down the Nepal Valley for a series of 10-minute rides, "Manakamana" contains nothing traditionally movie-like in its progression. And that's exactly what makes it one of the most engrossing cinematic achievements to come along since… well, "Leviathan."
Directed -- insofar as that term applies here -- by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez and produced by "Leviathan" visionaries Lucien Castain-Taylor and Verena Paravel, the feature begins with a single unbroken shot of an old man and a young child silently riding the car across the mountainside and arriving at their destination, where the Manakamana temple awaits. After a fleeting black screen and the whirring of cable engines, the car reemerges heading in the opposite direction with a new set of passengers. And so it continues, back and forth, around a dozen times over the course of the next two hours.
Yet while there's no precise narrative arc, "Manakamana" slowly grows more intriguing as it continues, rewarding patient viewers with a fascinating showcase of various occupants and an overall meditational quality that the journey begins to take on. Though Spray and Velez actually spent a year filming the car ride and selected various subjects based on an unorthodox casting process, the back-and-forth cycle never feels guided by anything other than the cable apparatus and the unrehearsed behavior of the passengers. While birds swoop by and a dense forest spreads out below, the characters frequently observe their surroundings and remark on its details, even as the camera never moves. But rather than generating claustrophobia, the device amplifies the smallest details and turns them into profound gestures.
By the time the first line of dialogue arrives some 20 minutes into the picture, the sound of language takes on the depth of a seismic event; from there, the effect swells incrementally with each new group. A trio of old women discuss their plans at the temple, and one recalls the days before the existence of the car when it took three days to walk up the mountain. Suddenly, the slow crawl feels a lot faster. With more time, the trip adopts a familiar rhythm: One gains fluency in the moments where the ride gets bumpy and the angles get steep, a solid foundation of events that foregrounds the various faces and behaviors until the entire concept takes on hugely profound implications. Since the experience of the ride is universal but the details vary, "Manakamana" delivers a neatly constructed metaphor for life itself.
Few movies derive their power from the cumulative effect of watching the same fundamental situation several times over. But "Manakamana" offers so many different versions of its ride that it manages to expand in richness as it goes along. In some cases it benefits from contrasts, such as when it features the arrival of young men -- wearing Hard Rock t-shirts, chatting about television and sporting iPhones -- on the heels of elderly riders who hail from a different era. Other sections manage to create genuinely entertaining hooks, particularly two musicians who play a beautiful piece in the final third of their journey and a trio of goats traveling sans owner.
On the whole, "Manakamana" succeeds by creating the ongoing anticipation of something, anything to happen next, a wholly unique sensation specific to its inventive design. Like "Leviathan," the movie chiefly works as a form of moving image poetry. "Nature is a flower pot for the cable car," observes one man halfway through the trip, as if realizing the context that the camera has put him in.
Because it demands extreme tolerance, "Manakamana" inspired plenty of walkouts during its first screenings at the Locarno Film Festival, where audiences may have had a general idea of what to expect but couldn't have fully comprehended the precise challenge. Interestingly, many viewers at the screening this critic attended openly expressed their frustration after the second or third trip rather than the first one. That delay suggests a lingering hesitation even on the part of audiences without a modicum of interest in the movie's specific appeal, hinting at the possibility that "Manakamana" says as much about the erosion of patience as it does about the value of holding onto it.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While too experimental for a wide release, the movie is bound to continue collecting accolades at festivals and could manage a decent performance with a small distributor willing to market it as an unprecedented experience.