Cinema Review: Samsara

DIR: Ron Fricke

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a beautiful, enormous world, and for the last 110 years we have had at our disposal the technology to capture its beauty in motion. The makers of Samsara are people who understand that in its simplest form, cinema is a visual medium that can reveal to viewers the image of anything that exists. So they have some lofty ambitions to begin with, that’s for sure.

Ron Fricke is responsible for the two most important works of ‘the world as it is’ cinema of the last 30 years as cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi and director of Baraka, to which Samsara is a spiritual successor. Coming a full 20 years after BarakaSamsara follows the same concept of juxtaposing imagery of the old, the new, and the timeless, scored by various genres of music, from tribal to drum & bass. It’s hard to describe to the uninitiated, but imagine touring the entire world in 90 minutes, stopping occasionally on your hurricane voyage to inspect the faces of strangers from the furthest corners of the Earth. Samsara is an adventure where you are an omnipotent explorer.

Shot in 25 countries over four years entirely with 70mm film stock, there are too many highlights to list here. Amongst them are throngs of Muslims circling the Grand Mosque at Mecca filmed at high-speed, the camera sailing over endless sand dunes, Tibetan monks slowly creating a vastly detailed, floor-sized artwork out of coloured grains of sand, and a heavily choreographed prison dance number.

Samsara’s seemingly endless array of images and ideas never ceases to boggle the mind; however, the film shows a curious bias towards imagery from Asia, with South America and Australia unnoticed and Europe represented by its cathedrals alone. In this way, Fricke and co. seem to undermine their own message, or at least the sensation that message is meant to evoke.

The film’s most memorable (and, by extension, troubling) sequence is a piece of performance art by a man dressed as a typical Western businessman who, sitting at his desk, enters into a tribalistic frenzy, painting himself with ink, paste and items of stationary as if in an aboriginal ritual. What it says about mankind’s rise from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’ is clear, but its staginess clashes frustratingly with the ‘world as it is’ feel of the entire film.

But with that one curious exception, the juxtaposition of images continues to impress. The film takes an extended trip through the Uncanny Valley, showing frighteningly lifelike android heads and heavily detailed synthetic sex dolls. Images of obscure African tribesmen are echoed superbly in the extremes of Japan’s youth subcultures. Shanghai’s slums are seen with tacky, towering skyscrapers in the distance.

What disappoints most about Samsara is how little it builds upon Baraka and how the world has changed in the 20 years since. There are glimpses of technological advancement – the aforementioned robot tech, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, a block of trash made entirely of discarded circuit boards – but many of the speeding cityscapes and all of the historic and natural landmarks could have been shot back in the early ‘90s. The most dramatic shift in day-to-day human life, the ease of access to information through technology, is represented in only one shot – bored New Yorkers glued to their mobile phones (and one to an iPad) as they ride exercise bikes at a gym. The image speaks volumes, but it is one of a small few that can answer the question ‘why now?’ with regards this film.

Where Samsara really calls back to Baraka is in extending the latter’s most infamous sequence, which saw hordes of tiny chicks pouring down a cascading series of conveyer belts to begin a terrifying life of claustrophobic captivity. Here the food process is seen in greater, more distressing detail, as adult chickens are hoovered back up a conveyer belt to a fate on a hook, cows are seen living their lives on what is little more than an enormous roulette wheel, and pig meat is stripped and sawn into pieces for distribution. Its message is important, but with these added grotesqueries it says little more than Baraka said with its hapless, tragic chicks.

Samsara is at times too heavy-handed with its messages, at others too obscure. But while it is overall more mournful in its tone than Baraka was, it is no less mesmerising. Sit back and enjoy as it makes gentle love to your eyeballs. Everything else in your day is going to look far less magical by comparison.

David Neary

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

Samsara is released on 31st August 2012

Samsara – Official Website