‘Samsara’

Samsara Balinese dancers“Samsara,” from the filmmaking team behind the wordless docs “Baraka” and “Chronos,” and clearly influenced by such earlier works as “Koyannisqatsi” and “Powaqqatsi,” sends a mixed message: By eschewing dialogue, narration or any descriptive text, the film demands that a viewer supply his own interpretation of the incredible images on display.

Yet that task is ripped away from the viewer all too soon. Through the pointed juxtaposition of images, sometimes even within the same shot, an intended message comes through with ham-fisted insistence.

Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means “the ever-turning wheel of life.” The images, captured during five years of globe-trotting in 25 countries by director Ron Fricke and his partner Mark Magidson, begin with Balinese dancers, Buddhist monks painstakingly working on a sand painting and infants undergoing baptism.

This shifts gradually to scenes of the aftermath of natural disasters such as tsunamis, storms, volcanoes and earthquakes. Then natural and man-made wonders appear from waterfalls, granite peaks and rock formations from such national treasures as Yosemite and Monument Valley to ancient cave dwellings and Gothic cathedrals that took centuries to build.

Such seeming randomness soon gives way to more and more editorializing. The memory of relics from a time when men lived in some harmony with nature (presumably) informs shots of freeway jams and overgrown cityscapes. (Yes, I’m afraid these are mostly of Los Angeles.)

Samsara Buddhists paint mandalaPeople live on top of each other in Brazilian favelas and Asian slums. Rag pickers and children roam filthy urban disasters. An infant lies in a tiny coffin.

In one of the film’s most disturbing sets of images you watch a horrifying chicken processing plant, presumably in China where all regulatory bets are off, to shots of overweight people hungrily chowing down on fried fast food in scenes more outrageous than any in “Food, Inc.”

A woman preparing for plastic surgery morphs into mannequins being painted and sex dolls being manufactured. This leads to Thai dancers shaking their booties in a “ladyboys” sex club and finally a Japanese geisha shedding a single tear.

A similar montage exists for the manufacture and distribution of guns and ammo in this increasingly combative world. There is even a bizarre shot of a family mourning over a casket shaped like a giant handgun.

When Fricke & Magidson — they divide up most of the filmmaking chores other than music — return to religious scenes as their answer for this screwed-up planet, all subtlety flees the film. But that wandering mind loosened in the early sections of the film — you know, the one the filmmakers encouraged to make up its own narration? — can’t help imaging another set of image juxtapositions that would have told an entirely different story.

Samsara doc show baby baptismHow about scenes of from the great religions — Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism — followed by multiple sequences of religious warfare, terrorism and tyranny. God knows — I use the term deliberately — how easily that could be done.

Yes, a return to spiritual values could and should act as balm to this troubled world. But men of bad will have so subverted organized religion and its fringes that most reclamation of true spirituality in today’s world resides outside of official religions.

The cinematography, aided and abetted by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrand, Michael Stearns’ somewhat New Age-y score, is the single best reason to catch this movie. Given enough time and places to visit — four continents the filmmakers claim — you can film amazing stuff.

Probably the single most arresting shot is an overhead shot of a tidal wave of pilgrims in Mecca’s Great Mosque. Where did they put the camera?

The time-lapse photography brings forth awesome images as well. For a 102-minute film without any narration, you’re not going to be bored for a single moment. What’s more, this is old-fashioned film.

Fricke shot in 70mm Panavision, then scanned the results into ultra-high resolution for HD digital projection. It does make a difference and you can only wish such a film such as “Samsara” will halt however briefly the mad rush into digital.

Think of it, dear filmmakers, as reclaiming spiritual values and virtuosity.


Opens: August 24, 2012 (Oscilloscope)
Production company: Magidson Films
Director/director of photography: Ron Fricke
Screenwriters/editors: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson
Producer: Mark Magidson
Music: Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrand, Michael Stearns
No rating, 102 minutes