Samsara – Movie Review

A rambling assault on the visual cortex that teeters between guided meditation and guided tour.

Put on your seatbelts and open your mind, the ride on Ron Fricke’s and Mark Magidson’s “Samsara” is about to begin. From his modest beginnings with “Chronos,” travelling through the odd, dreadful and beautiful in eight countries, “Samsara” opens up twenty-four nations to the critical eye of the filmmaker. As director Fricke puts it, “Doing these films takes a big chunk of your life force.” As it turns out, watching them takes a chunk of your life force as well. After you have finished you may want the chunk back, again.

Filmed in straight 70 mm celluloid, this may be one of that last high definition films shot without digital technology. The filmmakers have been dedicated to 70 mm for most of their careers, with Fricke using the medium as director of photography on “Koyaanisqatsi” in the early 1980s and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis.”

He was also second unit DP for Lusasfilm’s “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” This is the good news. The bad news is that the film seems to be more about film and less about people. It is the textbook example of brilliant screen images with asking the viewing audience to put a personal meaning to the spectacular images flashing across the screen.

Influenced by “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Samsara” takes the approach that the truth is stranger than fiction, contrasting lifestyles, religious, political and mythical cornerstones of Eastern cultures. The scenes are of people and places with different languages and customs, yet those differences pale in comparison to the differences in the attitude and environment of the strange actions associated with the species Homo sapien. Understanding this, the film does without dialog and concentrates on the visual, hoping to find a more direct link to the subconscious.

Like the Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, Ron Fricke’s “Chronos,” “Baraka,” “Samsara” trilogy is intent on showing a planet in trouble. Images of the past and present paint a path extrapolating to bad times, indeed. The grand music and the scintillating photography are supposed to underscore the importance of the message even while the film teeters precariously towards a promotional montage intended for the tourist market.

In fact, the most interesting comparison is not between the two “wake up or die” trilogies but between those films and the eerie and intellectual Patrick Keiller series, “London,” ”Robinson in Space” and Robinson in Ruins.” Keiller’s series substitutes a narrative for the music and provides a suggestive foundation from which the audience can build conclusions.

The photography, rather than aiming at the wondrous and beautiful, shows the world in a desultory light while the narrative suggests a possible chain of events that brought that about.

If Fricke’s approach is intended to be more pure, through its celebration of the visual image and the lack of the Sherlock Holmes setting of the Keiller films, it has failed. Samsara ends being a two dimensional depiction of three-dimensional issues. A series of glossy photographs backed by a thunderously self-important score makes us curious to see those places and talk to those people, but the historical perspective is lacking. It is that perspective that makes us think.

Earthshaking soundtrack by Michael Stearns, composer for a variety of multi-media experiences as well as the James Cameron films “Titanic” and “Avatar,” and Lisa Gerrard, contributor to “Whale Rider” and “Black Hawk Down.”

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Directed by: Ron Fricke
Written by: Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson
Release Date: August 17, 2012
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some disturbing and sexual images
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: None
Color: Color