Mana, as explained by a white-garbed Maori in a New Zealand forest primeval, is the mystical name given to the power invested in things. These power objects can be as tangible as tombstones or as abstract as pork futures. For “Mana — Beyond Belief,” documentary filmmaker Peter Friedman and anthropologist Roger Manley travel the globe recording the disparate forms of mana — from hordes of costumed Elvises at Graceland to ancestral ghost dancers in Benin. Spectacular imagery, ingenious juxtapositions and a rousing sense of showmanship could propel this sometimes facile visual essay on belief-systems into a limited arthouse run.
Eschewing any overall explanation or even scene-by-scene indications of where sequence is taking place, pic thankfully avoids the informational overkill that sinks, for instance, similar globe-hopping IMAX adventures. Helmers constantly vary tonalities: Some rituals are fully annotated, while others unfold as mystically incomprehensible spectacle.
Thus an American purveyor of mummified body parts touts ad nauseum the authenticity of his dubious wares: Hitler’s finger, Poe’s hand and Woodrow Wilson’s brain. But the viewer remains clueless as to why hundreds of pilgrims are busily affixing little squares of gold leaf to a bulbous boulder topped by a golden pagoda.
A full-scale paper Mercedes complete with a papier mache driver is burned in a funeral pyre to send a loved one comfortable wheels in an afterlife in what, according to pic’s Web site, is Malaysia. Meanwhile, in India, a man and his wife light incense and solemnly offer prayers to their new computer.
Pic’s best moments, however, marry Friedman’s drop-dead aesthetic sense with Manley’s ethnological zingers. A Japanese cherry blossom viewing affords exquisite arboreal compositions in an atmosphere of increasingly drunken revelry as company men engage in competitive drink-chugging, the set piece ending whimsically in a parade of black umbrellaed silhouettes past masses of white flowers.
Tech credits are aces, the crisp HD-to-35mm lensing almost an advertisement for the process.