Review: Samsara (2012)

Director: Ron Fricke

***

(This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie)

Samsara is the best promotional video a travel agent never made. Through the eyes of director Ron Fricke, the world bursts with colour. Samsara enraptures before attempting to send a message, albeit a vague one.

Fricke made his name with his work as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s revolutionary Koyaanisqatsi, and it is from Reggio’s work that Fricke takes his cue. Like Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, the decent Powaqqatsi and the intermittently dreadful Naqoyqatsi), Samsara is a chronicle of the world, without either dialogue or narrative. This approach may alienate some, but newcomers are urged to take the plunge. Filmed entirely on 70mm film, Fricke, as both director and cinematographer, hypnotizes with images of absolute wonder. The moon travels across a sapphire sky over an arid desert. Traditional Thai dancers dance one behind the other in perfect synchronicity. Buddhist monks create art from coloured powders with incredible precision. Practically every frame of Samsara could be blown up and mounted on a wall, such is their beauty.

Filmed across twenty-five countries and five years, Samsara offers the most breathtaking cross-section of Earth conceivable. In its scope and colour, Samsara is a match for (and sometimes eclipses) its predecessor, Baraka. The majestic shifting sands of the Sahara segue into human geography, as Fricke’s camera admires feats of human engineering and technology with equal amounts of admiration. A baptism is captured with the same reverence and awe as a mummified corpse. Samsara means ‘cyclic existence’ in Sanskrit, and miraculous images of both birth and death bleed from the screen in saturated hues.

Unfortunately, Samsara does feel preachy. Fricke plunges into the seedier side of human activity, as he visits strip clubs, abattoirs and huge jails. One can’t help but feel he’s pointing a judgmental finger at someone, although it’s never clear who. When this happens, Samsara lapses from wonder into smugness. It remembers to revert back to the profound and the pretty for the finale, but the sight of dozens of suspended pig carcasses amongst the temples and oceans does leave an odd aftertaste. The makers of Samsara have described it as a ‘guided meditation’, but it guides us into some unnecessarily unsavoury places.

Fans of Fricke and Reggio will lap Samsara up, and no-one would question its beauty. See Samsara on the biggest screen possible. For best results, however, try not to think about its message too much. For all its majesty, Samsara is also capable of condescension.

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