Manakamana ★★★★

Maybe this is a movie about a set of cable cars that travel up and down a mountain in Nepal. They're these boxy metal conveyances whose gray contrasts with the sprawling green of the forested hills below. They ferry a diverse clientele (men, women, children, goats) back and forth, rattling past the towers along which their wires are suspended, shuddering in the whoosh of the mountain winds. Manakamana's static-but-not-static camera documents the trembling physics of this quasi-ritualistic journey, which begins again every time it's over.

Maybe this is a movie about the people who occupy those gondolas. They're the characters in its eleven "short stories," each roughly ten minutes long, each beginning and ending in the station's darkness. (A darkness that builds suspense, spurring me to wonder: who's up next?) The passengers' hushed, disjointed conversations are the film's dialogue, and their awkward movements or gestures are its action. Their behavior while waiting in this betwixt and between space, tightly framed against their car's rear window, is Manakamana's plot.

Maybe this is a movie about the outer reaches of documentary form. Its seriality and intimacy thrust toward both the avant-garde and reality TV, while individual chapters suggest visual comedy or a musical. Or maybe it's about the methods by which viewers process onscreen information and how a film can teach them new algorithms in real time. Well, clearly Manakamana is expansive enough to accommodate all these disparate subjects, but it's also so laconic it leaves me wondering. No voiceover here to guide audience interpretation: just the hum of the cable car as it keeps moving up and down.

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