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film reviewsamsaraAwesome visual tone poem 'Samsara' tries too hard for profundity

Starting out as a cinematographer on Koyannisqatsi, the original trippy head movie, Ron Fricke has devoted his career to plotless, dialogue-free visual meditations on Nature and Life. Twenty years ago, he made his feature directing debut with Baraka, an uneven, if at times breathtaking, visual tone poem on who we are and how we live in the world.

Now Fricke and his filmmaking partner Mark Magidson are back with more of the same. Their new film, Samsara, was shot over five years, in twenty-five countries on five separate continents. And it was shot entirely on 70 mm film, which means the images have been captured with astonishing clarity, color, and nuance. For the most part, as long as Fricke sticks to the natural world—steaming volcanoes, vast drifting deserts of sand or canyons of snow—or contemplates the inanimate majesty of, say, ancient ruins, his results are literally awesome. It’s only when he succumbs to the urge to over-editorialize his images (either with staged sequences or obvious juxtapositions) that the movie’s spell is broken.

The word “samsara” is evidently a Sanskrit word which more or less translates as “life cycles.” This is as suitable a framing idea as any for a film that includes so many images of life and death—human, animal, and ecological—in so many diverse forms. Time and again, we’re reminded of the inevitable cycle of life, from embryo to death mask, from carcasses strung up in meat-packing plants to arid, yet strangely beautiful scrublands where naught but a few bare, gnarly trees push heroically up out of the ground for the sun.

In his most effective sequences, Fricke merely contemplates the state of existence. Vivid, curry-colored stone temples—dozens of them—from some long lost civilization rise out of a lush green forest like a panorama from some distant planet. Red-robed Tibetan monks painstakingly blow individual grains of colored sand through antique brass tubes into an extraordinarily detailed sand painting. Shot from high above, thousands of tiny, pulsing humans create a gigantic pinwheel thronging round the center of Mecca.           

Often, Fricke juxtaposes his images in clever, thoughtful ways. An aerial view of dwindling polar ice caps floating in an empty green Arctic sea bleeds into a shot of a heavily populated coastal community with close-set houses built right down to the waterline. One long, lovely, evocative meander through abandoned pueblo dwellings carved out of rockface, gradually filling up with the sands of time, gives way to forlorn modern post-disaster images: a schoolroom reduced to mosaic-like debris by receding floodwaters, and cars left hanging in tree tops.

But the temptation to impose narrative on the imagery sometimes gets the better of Fricke. A sequence of African tribespeople proudly displaying their painted and decorated bodies segues into a section on modern office drones in their pristine cubicles. Then the film detours to a white guy sitting at a desk in a business suit who grabs a pot of clay and starts transforming himself into a masked, wrapped, aboriginal shaman. It’s an amazing piece of performance art in itself, but an obviously staged thing that feels jarring and out of place in the naturalistic context of this movie.

In another overly obvious bit, images of voluptuous life-sized sex dolls morph into a sequence of live Asian women gyrating (for the camera) in bikinis and stiletto heels, which leads to a close-up of a Japanese woman in ancient geisha regalia leaking a solitary tear. Heavy. And while some of Fricke’s time-lapse photography can be achingly beautiful (especially of starfields and sunlight from within those pueblos), too many time-lapse montages of, say, car lights at night speeding across vast urban freeways just become repetitive.

Scenes relating chicken and cattle processing to Costco and fast food consumption aren’t exactly original. But Fricke draws more cogent parallels between assembly-line production of objects and industrial waste (particularly in a scene where shantytown dwellers comb through enormous mountains of trash, scavenging what they can). And he concludes his ramble through the mysteries of life on a smart note, returning to that intricate Tibetan sand painting with the message that nothing is permanent and everything evolves sooner or later.


SAMSARA

★★1/2 (out of four)

A film by Ron Fricke. Treatment and concept by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. An Oscilloscope Pictures release. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.


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