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Toronto Review: Godfrey Reggio Celebrates 30 Years Since ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ With Extraordinary Philip Glass-Scored ‘Visitors’

Toronto Review: Godfrey Reggio Celebrates 30 Years Since 'Koyaanisqatsi' With Extraordinary Philip Glass-Scored 'Visitors'

Thirty years have passed since the release “Koyaanisqatsi,” Godfrey Reggio’s first installment in his memorably abstract Qatsi trilogy, which captured the complexity of civilization through a gripping rush of images aided by an equally potent Philip Glass score. While the power of that project hasn’t faded, it provides only one specific take on the world’s constant movement. “Visitors,” Reggio’s latest experimental project with Glass and editor Jon Kane, provides an entirely different kind of immersion into the nature of reality. Rather than exploring the rush of time at the center of the Qatsi films, “Visitors” brings it to a halt.

Comparatively minimalist when viewed alongside his other work, the black-and-white “Visitors” consists of only 74 shots, established with such a steady rhythm that the movie practically takes the form of hypnosis. The images are relatively basic: Following an opening glimpse of a tranquil gorilla (end credits reveal this to be Triska, a Bronx Zoo resident) staring out at the audience, “Visitors” proceeds through a series of similarly contemplative shots featuring a diverse set of human faces, glimpses at the surface of the moon, aging trees buried in a swampy environment, and buildings that reach for the clouds. Whereas the style of the Qatsi films largely emphasized time-lapse photography that sped up the rush of civilization, “Visitors” generally slows everything down, repeatedly showing its subjects in engrossing slow motion. As one face after another receives its closeup, exhibiting a wide array of emotions, their collective humanity takes on an alien dimension and the gorilla’s perspective becomes our own. Rather than projecting specific ideas, each face represents a different pathway to considering the significance of being alive.

Reggio contrasts this showcase of vitality with its presence in nature. Unspeakably gorgeous outdoor shots flesh out the movie’s second half, striking a tone that’s simultaneously ominous and spiritual. Reggio’s subdued pace allows one to get swept up in the unending montage without feeling overwhelmed by it. The result is so intensely visual that it never begs for interpretation, foregrounding mood and the sheer act of perception over any precise meaning that would complicate the portrait. At the same time, the faces tell stories: A sullen gaze slowly shifts when a young woman starts to smile; another subject, a man, appears frozen in a silent scream. Yet there’s little hint as to the context to the images aside from the advanced set of emotions they convey. Eventually, “Visitors” melts into pure abstraction, in a kaleidoscopic arrange of floating distortions that create the impression of the individuality on display melting into a collective mesh of expressivity.

In the years since “Koyaanisqatsi,” many other image makers have presented different approaches to using cinema as a means of redefining the feeling of being alive. Last year’s visceral fishing documentary “Leviathan” used miniature cameras to convey the sheer chaos of life at sea by turning it into an overwhelming machine of motion. “Visitors” has no such aggressiveness in its approach. Rather than stripping the world of its familiar details, it intensifies our encounters with them and renders them alien.

All the while, Glass’ score (performed at the film’s world premiere by the Toronto Sympathy Orchestra) provides essential guidance. Less overtly cosmic than a lot of the composer’s work, the music for “Visitors” retains a cyclical quality that understates the epic quality of the project and grounds it with a linear device. It’s the only truly familiar ingredient in the project. By repeating the same few notes throughout, Glass positions each shot with a sense of awe but doesn’t overstate the mystery. What you see is what you get — the act of looking and the profound limitations that it brings. Not classifiable as any kind of documentary, “Visitors” instead functions as pure lyrical document, not just a record of existence but what it means to experience it.

Criticwire grade: A

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cinedigm will release “Visitors” early next year in several cities with different orchestras set up to play the score. Given the event-like nature of the project, it stands a good chance at performing well in major markets nationwide.

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