LITTLE ROCK I’m not sure if I fully grasp Samsara, but the good news is I don’t think I’m supposed to.
Assembled over five years and shot in more than 25 countries, Samsara takes its title from a Sanskrit word for the “ever turning wheel of life.” In the stretch of an hour and 42 minutes, director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson, the makers of the 1992 non-narrative movie Baraka, come astonishingly close to capturing just that.
Fricke, who also photographed the film, shot the whole thing in 70mm, a wide, high-resolution film format. As a result, images are astonishingly vivid and colors seem to leap out of the screen. Thankfully he and Magidson, who teamed up on the editing, found plenty of breathtaking sights.
Samsara begins with Balinese dancers and gradually switches to a Buddhist monastery where the monks carefully create delicate images with colored sand. Along the way, we see deserts and volcanoes and get the sense that the calm environment the monks enjoy may be either fleeting or cover for a deeper turmoil.
Samsara wanders from big cities and villages in Africa to familiar sights in the USA. If you want to know what you’re staring at, you’ll have to wait for the closing credits. Fricke and Magidson don’t provide titles to inform us what’s on the screen, and there’s no narration.
That doesn’t mean that Fricke and Magidson aren’t saying something. For one thing, many of the sights are familiar, and you don’t need some overbearing narrator telling you that a car that has come to rest several feet off the ground is in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, some of the film’s appeal comes from trying to guess where Fricke and Magidson are taking us.
In one village, we see locals who live in huts but also sport shiny, well-maintained rifles. Some people here in the States also solemnly show off their guns as well.
The film also presents a sort of cradle-to-grave view of the industrial process, showing goods being assembled and then later being crushed and placed into overflowing landfills. The filmmakers then apply that principle to food production, showing how animals get to the dinner table. Yes, it’s disturbing.
Samsara also includes an intriguing monologue of prayer. Fricke and Magidson capture everything from pilgrims in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to grand cathedrals and devotions at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Somehow, in 70mm it’s easy to get a sense that there really is something beyond what our eyes and ears can detect.
The eclectic musical score ties all of Fricke’s images together by occasionally pairing melodies from one culture with sights of another. The net result is an odd sense of connection that makes the disparate images seem like more than a simple hodgepodge.
Because it’s wordless, Samsara might not lead to long parking lot discussions. That doesn’t mean the film won’t stay with you later.
Samsara 86 Cast: Planet Earth Director: Ron Fricke Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing and sexual images Running time: 102 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 11/16/2012
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