A non-fictive but scarcely less fantastical (or mannered) equivalent to Matthew Barney’s cinematic oeuvre, Italian visual artist Yuri Ancarani’s debut feature “The Challenge” offers plenty of exotic spectacle if little insight into its arcane subject. A look at the extravagant pastimes of fabulously wealthy Qatari sheikhs during one sporting desert weekend, the documentary simply asks us to gawk at the often-bizarre contrasts on display, without context or explanation.
Undeniably striking in aesthetic terms, the documentary is an objet d’art that will wow some — such as Locarno’s Special Jury Prize-givers — while ultimately wearing out the patience of others, despite its slim, 70-minute runtime. Yet it certainly deserves to be seen on the big screen; Kino Lobber picked up North American theatrical rights (targeting an early September opening) during the film’s Hot Docs run.
For a long time it’s not clear what ties together our nominal protagonists, but they all seem to be headed toward a remote desert location for recreational purposes. Among them are a black-leather-clad motorcycle club; a private jet specially rigged to transport trained birds of prey; and a singular man in a Lamborghini whose cross-country traveling companion is a fully grown pet cheetah.
Whatever their means of transit, it’s clear these are first-class travelers: The hog piloted by the leader of Soul Riders Qatar appears to be literally gold-plated, and other forms of highest-end conspicuous consumption are plentifully displayed. (In the few interior sequences, one notes the subjects share a taste in decor that’s heavy on precious-metal surfaces and coloration; interestingly, the final credits acknowledge two set designers.)
For the first quarter-hour, no one is heard speaking and no one is interviewed, per se. Eventually we glean that the principal activity is that ancient sport of kings, falconry. But en route to the main event there are detours, including a live, closed-circuit auction of the highly valued birds, and some hazily competitive races between sport utility vehicles around, and up, steep sand dunes.
What all this is leading to remains anyone’s guess until finally we reach a climactic tournament involving falcons, pigeons, bird’s-eye cameras and more SUVs. Twinning centuries-old tradition with the latest technology certainly has a slightly absurdist theoretical appeal, but in practical terms, it’s something of a letdown, with the film ending in a humble found-footage-video mess of bloody feathers.
Aside from those entrusted with caring for the birds (which are groomed as carefully as Oscar attendees), we see no one but the high-rolling guests, clad in flowing white robes and headscarfs. This seems somewhat disingenuous, and another way in which Arcarani refuses to sully the abstract perfection of his canvas by probing beyond the surface. Where is the army of servants who prepare the feasts and erect the desert tents, keeping their immaculate interiors free of even a visible sand grain? Just off-screen, presumably. And while the exclusion of women from this cultural arena isn’t unexpected, the only female glimpsed at all is a camel-riding tourist, very briefly and early on.
Ancarani and his two fellow cinematographers revel in bold widescreen compositions that would be suitable for framing even without the frequent near-surreal pairings of man and beast. Equally assertive if sparingly used is an orchestral score by Lorenzo Senni and Francesco Fantini that, when applied, is a rather overpowering.
Indeed, everything about “The Challenge” is a bit much, which is both good and bad. At first glance the film makes a knockout impression, at once showy and enigmatic. But as it proceeds, dishing up more idiosyncratic imagery but absolutely no insight, the spell may begin to pall for many viewers. To those for whom Qatar signals only monarchy, Sharia law, fantastic mineral-based wealth, human-rights breaches and “that place where they hold conferences and summits when they don’t want protestors to show up” will chafe at learning nothing more. In fact, even those basic characteristics go unacknowledged here.
Loathe to mar his exquisite package with the least hint of vulgar commentary, Ancarani arrives at something that is at once luxuriously alluring and a little too like an advertisement for luxury products — dazzling, aloof, uncritical and fatuous.