The faces in “Manakamana,” a transporting ethnographic film set in a green sliver of Nepal, stare into the camera, out into space and, perhaps, into the great beyond. The faces are sometimes creased and weathered, sometimes smooth as pebbles. A few look etched with worry, as if they were weighed down by a heavy burden, although they may also be seized with fear. That’s because for 10 or so minutes at a time, these faces are floating hundreds of feet above a lush Nepali forest in a cable car that takes pilgrims to and from the temple that gives this film its rhythmic title.
Located in the Gorkha district near the center of Nepal and close to the Chinese border, Manakamana is a temple of the Hindu goddess Durga, believed to have the power to fulfill wishes.
There’s little available online in English about the temple other than the vaguely touristic, which ranges from the yawningly obvious (it’s a sacred site) to the hair-raising (it’s also a gory locale because of the animal sacrifices at the temple). Somewhat surprisingly, there’s also next to no information about it in “Manakamana,” which consists of 11 uncut shots — each 10 to 11 minutes long, or a 400-foot roll of 16-millimeter film — most taken in a closed cable car. The movie is being released digitally, but its luxurious visual quality, with its near-tactile sense of texture and depth, owes much to its being shot on film.
All of the shots begin and end with passengers clambering on and off a car in the near dark as the camera stays securely inside. For about half the trips, the cars hypnotically move up and over the undulating forested mountain; for the other half, they move down. Some passengers chat, others laugh, while still others sit in silence. At one point, a mewling kitten rides along; later, so does a doomed chicken.
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By focusing on such a narrow slice of Nepali life, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez have ceded any totalizing claim on the truth and instead settled for a perfect incompleteness.