This superb Nepal-set documentary hinges on a simple premise: A 16mm camera is placed in one of the cable cars traveling up to Manakamana Temple, a shrine to the Hindu goddess Bhagwati located almost a mile above sea level. The trip takes about ten minutes one-way; each shot of the film follows a different set of passengers as they travel to and from the site.
For a nearly two-hour movie, that rigorous, repetitive structure may sound unavoidably tedious. Yet codirectors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez keep things consistently compelling with a wide variety of subjects: An old man and his grandson, the boy clearly a bit agitated, make the journey without a word. A mother and daughter eat melting ice-cream cones that keep staining their clothes. Even a group of goats gets in on the (in)action, bleating fearfully every time their cage car rolls over one of the support towers.
Manakamana is often funny (two girls who initially seem like antagonistic strangers hilariously turn out to be the best of friends), but it also possesses a serious and sublime spirituality. The filmmakers give each of their subjects’ treks the feel of a divine pilgrimage, with no true beginning or end. Whenever the passing verdant landscape vanishes into ethereal cloud cover, it’s as if we’re moving between states of being. In this context, the most mundane conversation might suddenly take on a metaphysical grandeur, while every moment of silence feels fleetingly precious. You could hardly ask for a more beautiful vision of souls in transit.
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