Samsara focuses on both the timeless and temporary
A documentary by Ron Fricke. Rated 18A.
Samsara—directed by Ron Fricke, the man who made 1992’s Baraka and who was chief cinematographer for the earlier Koyaanisqatsi—was shot in 25 countries over a five-year period, and its 70mm images are never less than stunning. For folks who’ve seen the earlier non-narrated travel films, however, there will be more than a whiff of familiarity.
Taking its cues from the Sanskrit word for the ever-spinning wheel of life and death, as represented by a Tibetan-Buddhist sand painting that bookends the 98-minute journey, the new film focuses on both the timeless and temporary. The most ambiguous images (none identified by titles) are the most arresting: abandoned houses filled with sand, for instance, or Egyptian tenements built right up against the pyramids.
Fricke and series producer Mark Magidson walk on shakier ground, aesthetically speaking, when their messages are more obvious. A man is buried in a pistol-shaped coffin, and that’s followed by a long sequence on the manufacture of guns and ammunition, itself capped by a horribly disfigured war veteran standing before endless crosses at Arlington National Cemetery. A visual disquisition on gender roles ends with a dancing parade of Thai ladyboys, which is all well and good. But when a static close-up of a Japanese geisha reveals a single tear, there is more kitsch than revelation.
As with the previous films, there is an overdependence on time-lapse trickery, as well as a clear preference for the glories of nature over human-made endeavours; with all those identically dressed factory workers and cruelly mechanized slaughterhouse conditions, who could conclude otherwise? Still, Samsara’s appreciation of architectural grandeur (the kind from the past, anyway) does at least acknowledge human striving for genuine greatness. Sunrise visits to ancient places like Angkor Wat and overhead views of modern pilgrims to Mecca reveal mandalalike perspectives that, in the end, are too powerful for words, or perhaps even thought.
Watch the trailer for Samsara.