“Act of God,” Jennifer Baichwal’s metaphysical inquiry into the whys and wherefores of being struck by lightning, alternates between spectacular images of electrical storms and interviews with lightning survivors, aficionados and worshippers. Unlike Baichwal’s other docus, such as “Let It Come Down” on Paul Bowles, or the extraordinary “Manufactured Landscapes,” “Act” is neither filtered through nor structured around another artist’s work, and suffers from the lack of a unifying vision, its parts greater than the whole. Nevertheless, those parts pack enough bigscreen wallop to lure auds to the pic, which opened Nov. 4 at Gotham’s IFC Center.
Whenever Baichwal and her cinematographer/co-producer/husband Nick de Pencier turn their attention heavenward, the resulting skyscapes dazzle: blinding white canvases that gloriously resolve themselves into cloud formations, and roiling thunderheads spitting bolts in all directions. The relationship between these celestial events and the film’s earthbound epiphanies, however, generates more mixed results.
Playful, eerily disembodied voices of a man and woman weave around Baichwal’s visit to a “lightning museum” in France, lingering over objects transformed by electrical fire, as the man speaks of almost losing his soul to his storm-chasing obsession.
An ex-CIA assassin’s account of his 28-minute death after being struck by lightning — and his subsequent New Age ministry — is somewhat satirically presented with psychedelic, Vegas-style marquee lights. The film next shifts into travelogue mode with the dramatic give-and-take between lightning-studded thunderstorms and Cuban ritual appeasements of the Yoruba bolt-tossing god Shango, while in Mexico, mothers try to fathom why five children on a pilgrimage died while praying under a hillside cross.
True to her predilections, Baichwal reserves the lion’s share of her docu for artists’ contributions to the lightning cult. Paul Auster attributes his lifelong fascination with philosophical questions of chance to his childhood experience of watching a friend die seconds before he himself would have passed the lightning flashpoint. James O’Reilly, whose play gave Baichwal’s film its title and subject, treats the audience to graphic re-creation of the massive jolt that sent several boys flying.
But the oddest, most eclectic input comes from avant-garde guitarist Fred Firth, whose color-coded brain waves serve as internalized patterns of electrical impulses, and whose complex, thunderstorm-inspired composition closes Baichwal’s scattershot docu in grand style.
Tech credits impress.