It's hard to single out just one image from Yuri Ancarani's beautifully photographed experimental documentary "The Challenge" that stands out above the others, but one of the film's first shots is especially memorable. On a journey to the desert for a falconry competition, one of the avian athletes is seen wearing an elegant hood and sitting on a fancy perch, while staring out the window of its owner's private plane — a very different kind of "bird in flight."
At no point in "The Challenge" does Ancarani attempt to explain anything about the falcon-obsessed Qatari sheiks he's following for this film, or to describe their contests. The movie eschews narration and captions, and instead just strings together one stunning scene after another of inconceivably wealthy oil men indulging their passions.
Footage of luxury SUVs driving through desolate landscapes — and opulently robed men sitting in tents watching big-screen TVs — makes it seem like "The Challenge" was filmed not just in another country but on another planet. When Ancarani cuts to POV shots of falcons in flight, the effect is magical.
Some more journalistically minded viewers may wish this movie had more to say about the politics and economics that allows Ancarani's subjects to live so extravagantly, with animals they undoubtedly treat better than their underlings. But that's the wrong way to think of "The Challenge." This movie is more like a gallery exhibition of moving portraits — each more astonishing than the last.
In Arabic with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 7 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills, beginning Dec. 8; selected Laemmle theaters, Dec. 11-12