A spectacular new film explores the physics and metaphysics of nature's most terrifying elemental force
You probably don’t need a movie to tell you that lightning can evoke something approaching religious terror in the most atheistic people, and can be seen as the direct work of God by the faithful. Maybe your own body told you that, the last time the hair on your neck and arms stood rigid while a bolt took down a neighbor’s tree. (At our family’s getaway house in central New York state, summer lightning strikes have more than once caused the phone to ring. As my wife once observed, if it’s actually God on the line, what do you say?) Or maybe the fact that virtually every religious and spiritual tradition views lightning as a death-dealing instrument of divine power clued you in.
Nonetheless, that movie is here, and Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal’s “Act of God” is an undeniably provocative head-trip, laced with the most spectacular lightning-storm footage I’ve ever seen. (Baichwal got jobbed out of an Oscar nomination, in my view, for “Manufactured Landscapes,” her film about photographer Edward Burtynsky and his remarkable work in China.) All those divided forks and curlicues and bizarre non-geometrical shapes are dreadful and gorgeous on their own terms, but you can’t avoid the sense that there’s something fundamental about them, and that they seem momentarily to open a window onto an understanding of reality you’re not equipped to grasp.
That alone might be worth making a special trip to see this film on a big screen, or an expedition to the house of that friend with the really humongous plasma screen, once the DVD gets here. Beyond the amazing light show, don’t expect Baichwal to take on lightning in direct or linear fashion; many viewers will be enthralled by “Act of God,” while others may well be irritated. If you pay attention, you will learn a little about the basic physics of lightning in this movie. You’ll also learn a little about how it mimics (on a macro scale) the transmission of electrical information within the human brain, and even how many scientists point to lightning storms in the primeval ocean as the source of the first chemical reactions — and thereby the first life. But this isn’t a science film, and the elliptical story Baichwal wants to tell is far more about our reactions to lightning — the way we fear it and wonder at it, the way it appears to us as both random and divine — than about lightning itself.
Her human subjects range from novelist Paul Auster, who has written about his near-miss with lightning as a teenager at camp (the boy directly in front of him was killed), to a Las Vegas death-and-dying guru who says his spiritual practice was activated by a near-fatal lightning strike, to practitioners of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, who view lightning as an attribute of the god Shango; and to a group of Mexican villagers struggling to understand an especially cruel act of the deity, when several of their children were killed by lightning at a hilltop shrine.
Baichwal’s title, while it’s meant to be suggestive, does not signify a religious interpretation: The term, after all, is used by insurance companies to describe lightning strikes, as well as by believers. To the devout Catholics in that Mexican town, “God doesn’t make mistakes,” and the incomprehensible deaths of their “angelitos” can only mean they were called away to some higher purpose. For Paul Auster, being struck by lightning is just one of the many chance events that we vainly struggle to fit into a pattern. Yet for all his talk about facing life as it is, and avoiding “fairy tales,” he admits that the lightning incident has informed his writing career ever since. As Baichwal sees it, I think, this most elemental of elemental forces challenges whatever we do or do not believe about the universe. If it doesn’t kill us first.
“Act of God” opens Nov. 4 at the IFC Center in New York, with wider national release to follow.
More Related Stories
- Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors, dies at 74
- Beware of book blurbs
- Did a Salon excerpt ruin Penn Jillette's chance to win "Celebrity Apprentice"?
- Zach Galifianakis to take formerly homeless woman to "Hangover 3" premiere
- Seth MacFarlane will not host Oscars again
- "SNL's" uncomfortable Garner/Affleck moment
- "Celebrity Apprentice" finale ratings hit a new low
- Worst National Anthem fails
- The truth in Kanye's anti-prison rap
- Stephen Colbert to UVA: "You must always make the path for yourself"
- "Game of Thrones," season 3, episode 8: A salon
- Bieber booed, Miguel falls on fan at Billboard Awards
- "Mad Men" recap: Love, acid and whores. Lots of whores
- Taylor Swift leads Billboard winners
- “Game of Thrones” recap: “We must do our duty”
- "The Unwinding": What's gone wrong with America
- Michael J. Fox wins: The best and worst of the new fall shows
- First look: The Coens' marvelous folk-music odyssey
- New York's most persecuted subway artist?
- James Franco: "I really felt I was in conversation with Faulkner"
- "Jodorowsky's Dune": The sci-fi classic that never was
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
For the latest movie coverage from Andrew O'Hehir, see his author page.