There are images in “The Challenge,” a compact, intriguing documentary by Yuri Ancarani, that seem to belong less to a nonfiction film than to a hallucination. A group of falcons, hooded and tethered to their man-made roosts, sits in the cabin of a private jet. A cheetah (unless it’s a jaguar) lounges in the passenger seat of a black Lamborghini.
The cat would give the car a run for its money, and the birds could surely soar more gracefully than the plane, running on pigeon flesh rather than fossil fuel. This kind of absurdity is one of Mr. Ancarani’s motifs. Embedded with a group of rich young Qatari men, he films their leisure pursuits with elegant gravity and understated — all but unstated — wit. In addition to falconry and exotic pet ownership, the men cruise the desert in white SUVs and gold-plated motorcycles, recording their exploits on cellphones and stopping now and then to pray.
The mixture of hedonism and piety that defines their lives — at least those parts that the film chooses to depict — is fascinating, and a different kind of documentary might have delved into the cultural, sociological and religious aspects of aristocratic life in the modern Middle East. But Mr. Ancarani’s allegiances are less to traditional journalistic approaches to documentary than to the immersive, anti-interpretive ethos of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, J.P. Sniadecki and other exponents of what is sometimes called sensory ethnography. “The Challenge” emphasizes the first word in that phrase. Shot in rich, wide-screen color, with minimal camera movements (except when a small camera is attached to a falcon’s restless head) and almost no dialogue, it is detached almost to the point of abstraction.
The young men look…