MANA: BEYOND BELIEF (Peter Friedman and Roger Manley). 90 minutes. Opens Tuesday (July 26) at the Royal. For times, see Indie & Rep Film, page 92. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The tagline of Mana: Beyond Belief is "Everyone believes in something." "Mana" is a Polynesian word for the idea that beliefs give objects meaning. It's what makes a saint's relic different from your bones, or Elvis's grave better than any old plot of earth.
As a round-the-world trip into belief systems, Mana is beautiful and eye-opening, providing up-close access to Navajo crystal-gazing and a full moon ceremony in Burma.
But the filmmakers had better hand out their production notes at theatres, because the film doesn't explain these rituals and beliefs or even give place names to let us in on whose sacred ground we're on.
That objects are invested with meaning the world over is an interesting factoid, but without understanding why cherry blossoms are cause for sake-soaked joy in Japan, or why Malaysians burn a paper Mercedes at a funeral, we won't feel much kinship with those whose faith differs from ours.
Leaving out titles and voice-over was deliberate; the images are meant to speak for themselves, and to some extent they do. The similarities between an Asian fish market and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, for example, are many and amusing. And the concept itself, of trying to capture belief on film, is fascinating. Still, a word of explanation here and there would not have hurt and might have helped the message.