Breathing Earth: Film Review

Lovely art-doc matches its subject's body of work perfectly.

More than a decade after "Rivers and Tides," documentarian Thomas Riedelsheimer returns to the intersection of art and environment.

SEATTLE -- Gentle and near-hypnotic, Thomas Riedelsheimer's Breathing Earth trails Japanese artist Susumu Shingu as he tries to adapt his kinetic sculpture to a much larger, village-sized center for eco-conscious culture. Viewers who fondly remember the German documentarian's 2001 portrait of Andy Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, will find this an ideal (if lower-profile) follow-up, an art doc that observes the natural world and human imagination in easy harmony.

Shingu, a gentle soul in his seventies, can be described as a descendant of Alexander Calder, making movement an integral component of his art, though he places less emphasis on mobiles that hang suspended from the ceiling, and his pieces often move in more surprising ways. Some perch atop columns, like devices signaling oncoming strangers; others play with water, weight and momentum in ways that recall a Rube Goldberg mousetrap. Many are entrancingly lovely. Riedelsheimer shows us enough of these to make us wish we could spend another half-hour or more in their presence.

Instead he enriches our appreciation of the man-made work by savoring the places that inform it. We sit with the artist at the sides of ponds, linger near bamboo forests, listen to the wind moving through leaves. The scenes move with the quiet, unhurried ease of Shingu's more fluid sculptures, and serve as a substitute for the kind of talky biographical rundown we'd get in most films of this genre. (We hear very little about the artist's life, in fact, though we get enough to understand his partnership with wife Yosuke Shingu, who started off as his assistant when he was already married, grew close to him, then waited until his children were grown so they could officially become a couple.)

Some of the more exotic vistas seen here -- in Scotland, Turkey, and the Monarch butterfly nesting grounds of Mexico -- are places Shingu visits while looking for a site on which to build "Breathing Earth," the collection of dome-shaped auditoriums and meeting rooms that has his friend, architect Renzo Piano, teasingly calling him a madman. The artist intends to generate all the electricity the buildings need with new windmills of his own design (far less efficient than regular air turbines, but silent and aesthetically pleasing); there will be an organic garden, with a restaurant to cook its produce, and so on.

The mini-Utopia doesn't get too far in the course of the film -- he's still vetting locations, and given the places he's going, who can blame him -- but Breathing Earth suggests Shingu is pretty good at spreading his nature/art philosophy even without an auditorium.

Production Company: Filmpunkt, Skyline

Director-Editor-Director of photography: Thomas Riedelsheimer

Producers: Leslie Hills, Stefan Tolz

Music: Stephan Micus

No rating, 93 minutes