Act of God
More than just a bolt from the blue
The chances of being hit by lightning are 1 in 700,000. Or so says one of the interview subjects in Jennifer Baichwal’s solid and offbeat documentary “Act of God.’’ He presumably knows, since he’s survived a lightning strike. Lightning, even more as metaphysical puzzle than meteorological spectacle, is the film’s subject.
Baichwal’s previous film, “Manufactured Landscapes’’ (2007), looked at photographer Edward Burtynsky and his images of industrial predation, in China especially. That, too, had an overwhelming visual subject, but one person’s point of view. Here we get several. Interview subjects include the novelist Paul Auster; the guitarist Fred Frith, whose psychologist brother takes images, which we get to see, of his synapses while he plays (internal lightning, if you will); the proprietor of a lightning museum in France; and a former Marine who was clinically dead for 28 minutes after lightning struck him.
As a 14-year-old at summer camp, Auster survived a light ning strike. A friend, only feet away, was electrocuted because he was crawling under a barbed-wire fence when the lightning struck. Why one boy rather than the other? That interplay between chance and destiny haunts the documentary. As a Canadian survivor puts it, “I can’t accept it happened for a reason, nor can I accept there was no reason.’’
A sequence shot in Cuba about Shango, the lightning god in the Santeria religion, seems unfocused. Another sequence, in which a Mexican mother describes the lightning strike that spared her but not her daughter, is obviously central to Baichwal’s concerns. Yet it’s so heartbreaking as to obscure any response other than overwhelming sympathy.
The film has no narrator, perhaps in recognition of lightning’s intrinsic eloquence - it’s an inscrutable eloquence, but all the more powerful for that inscrutability. The film doesn’t need a narrator, since the people whose accounts we hear speak so absorbingly. All talking heads should talk so articulately.
Lightning, Auster says, “has something of the divine about it.’’ In appearance, a lightning bolt seems like the sky’s attempt to descend to earth. Baichwal’s style is calm and detached - too much so, at times - as if to balance the astonishing footage of lightning she intersperses throughout “Act of God.’’
“Lightning and change go hand in hand,’’ says the ex-Marine. Is it any wonder he now counsels the terminally ill - and lives in Las Vegas?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.