Appellate Judge Dan Mancini lobbied for an expenses-paid trip to Polynesia so that he could study this concept of "mana" and pass on its wisdom to you, dear reader, but the powers that be at DVD Verdict just laughed in his face.
Everyone believes in something.
I'm pretty sure Mana: Beyond Belief is meant to demonstrate through clever juxtaposition that many of our own cultural assumptions are every bit as ridiculous as we find those of other cultures. That said, it's difficult to get around the fact that Western Civilization comes across in the film as Earth's tacky trailer park, packed to the gills with rubes of the first order. After a brief introduction in which a Maori discusses his animistic religion and introduces the idea of mana—a totem object that has authority and prestige because of the awe it inspires—the first half-hour of the movie is a series of achingly gorgeous and wildly exotic images: Native Americans incorporate large crystals into their nature worship; Japanese at a cherry blossom festival surround themselves with beauty; an African tribe performs a ceremony in brightly colored and elaborately embroidered costumes in order to appease their gods.
The contemplative beauty of these scenes is followed by a series of gauche displays by Westerners. True believers stare in awe at the Shroud of Turin, their time with the artifact brought to an end by a sterile, professional voice thanking them and instructing them to exit the viewing area, like they've just finished a ride at Disney World. A group of German experts uses technology to prove that The Man with the Golden Helmet wasn't painted by Rembrandt. With a minimum of ceremony, the long-revered painting is shuffled off to a less-prominent place in its Berlin museum. Elvis impersonators from all over the world—some convincing, some utter embarrassments—gather at Graceland to sing, swivel their pelvises, show off loads of rhinestones, mutton chops, and pot bellies, and have their pictures taken. Shrouded in shadow, a creep claims to collect and sell totemic human remains. He shows us shriveled, desiccated trophies he claims are Woodrow Wilson's brain, the skulls of Monsieur and Madame Curie, Edgar Allen Poe's right hand, and Amelia Earhart's finger. Then again, the guy also owns Satan's horned mummy, so we might want to take his claims with a grain of salt. North Carolina congressman Howard Coble talks about a daily ritual in which American flags, at the request of constituents, are raised above the U.S. Capitol building, then sent to said constituents with a letter of authentication so they can impress their friends with a genuine symbol of American patriotism that has flown over the "seat of freedom." We then see the ritual by which these flags are raised: A crew sloppily cranks one flag after another up a pole, each flying above the Capitol for approximately a second and a half. Some of them fly upside down. The ceremony is as unlovely as it is wrought with irony.
Mana: Beyond Belief's central message seems to be that nothing makes a group of Africans who believe they're in trouble with the gods if the village goat doesn't eat the handful of grass they offer him look like perfectly reasonable chaps like an international assortment of Elvis impersonators or religious folks who've turned the supposedly authentic shroud of the crucified Christ into an amusement park ride. I'll admit that I had a bit of trepidation when I dropped Mana into my DVD player. I figured it might be the visual equivalent of droning, hypnotic New Age synthesizer music or those whale song CDs. How would I review a disc that put me to sleep like a fistful of Sominex washed down with NyQuil and chased with a shot of Jack Daniels? However, I enjoyed it. It's a languid, exotic travelogue loaded with cynical black humor. Its laughs are artfully earned through crack photography and editing; it makes its point forcefully without ever being obvious or patronizing because there's no voiceover telling us what we're supposed to make of the images we witness.
The movie looks like it was shot on high-definition video because there's not an ounce of film grain present. The image is smooth, detailed, and colorful. The transfer is excellent, even handling fog and mist without any signs of blocking or pixilation. Genius Products has done a fine job bringing Mana: Beyond Belief to DVD.
Audio is presented in Dolby stereo. The mix is clean and vibrant. Music and natural sound have a wealth of dynamic range and nothing in the way of distracting flaws or limitation in the source. Though dialogue is minimal, all of it—no matter the language—is subtitled in English. The captions are burned in. This is the transfer's only major deficiency.
Text biographies for Peter Friedman and Roger Manley, who share writing and directing credits on Mana, are the only extras on the disc.
Mana: Beyond Belief is a visually lush affair that may even make you laugh aloud with its subtle razor humor. Then again, it may only put you to sleep.
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