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Samsara – film review

January 26, 2013


A darkly visual symphony for the soul.

Reviewed on Wednesday 23rd January 2013

samsara dubai waterfall

No … this is not CGI … this is for real.

Directed and photographed by Ron Fricke. Produced by Mark Magidson. Concept and treatment by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. Music by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci. Running time: 99 mins.

Filmed in twenty-five countries on five continents over five years, Samsara is a wordless ninety-nine minute visual poem of staggeringly beautiful images set to music which has, at its heart, a message of vital importance about where we are headed as a species if we continue to disconnect spiritually from the natural world. Samsara is also a sanskrit word which refers to the circular nature and continuous flow of reincarnation, of endlessly doing the same things over and over expecting a different result or looking for happiness to arise if we just try one more time. The repeating cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

A montage prior to the main title bears out this concept – opening with a trio of brightly-colored doll-like Balinese dancers, followed by fiery volcanic lava, a foetus   in utero, a mummified old person and finally a gold Egyptian pharaoh’s death mask – life, birth, death and rebirth – reincarnation. Following the main title, Buddhist monks in Tibet meticulously create a sand mandala on the floor of their monastery at which point ‘the narrative’ begins proper and holds us mesmerized – spellbound even – for the film’s entire running time. Never have I been at a screening where not a single shuffle from the audience was heard, nor a single whispered word was spoken, while a film played out.

samsara - lake

Although I missed seeing Fricke’s companion piece Baraka in cinemas in 1992, I did go see Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi back in the day (also photographed by Fricke). And it was only recently I caught Baraka on blu-ray (which looks magnificent by the way) and Samsara is very much a continuation of these films. To say this film is non-narrative isn’t entirely true as this implies the piece is without form or structure – whereas the film does indeed have these things. Much like Koyaanisqatsi, the first third of Samsara is primarily concerned with the natural world. Again we see breathtakingly beautiful time lapse motion-control shots of ever-changing shadows creeping across barren landscapes while a disc of stars rotates overhead. These scenes soon give way to images of a sand-inundated ghost town in Namibia, ancient Mexican cave ruins and, more recently, deserted Louisiana buildings left abandoned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – a reminder that our claim on this world is far more ephemeral than we would care to believe.

From this point on, the film becomes appropriately troubling in tone – as we quickly descend into the frenetic modern world of the ant-like goings-on of LA and Tokyo. There is something very wrong with the world and Ron Fricke isn’t afraid to show us what it is – processed animals on automated production lines are joined by human workers in telemarketing cubicles and factories, assembling throwaway consumer products which are then recycled or scavenged by the desperate poor in smouldering third world garbage dumps.

Despite the doom and gloom of the second half, there are moments of levity to lighten the mood. The most memorable being an amazingly surreal sequence where hundreds of Philippine convicts engage in a tightly-choreographed exercise yard workout which resembles more a night club dance routine (set to a pumping techno beat) than anything from old Alcatraz movies.

Although the film has obvious leanings towards eastern philosophies; Buddhism       for example – no distinction is made between east and west when it comes to         the slavery of unbridled consumerism and the inherent dehumanizing aspects of corporatization. The subtext in parts is overtly clear – perhaps a little too obvious at times. But then again, in this dumbed-down world of American Idol and Master Chef, perhaps the message needs to be this overt in order to make any kind of impression at all on contemporary audiences.

As amazing as Koyaanisqatsi was back in the day, I was never a huge fan of Philip Glass’ excrutiatingly awful and massively overrated musical score. Michael Stearns’ score for Baraka was much more pleasant on the ears and his particular brand of laid-back, ambient world music (here featuring vocals by Lisa Gerrard), is a textbook example of music and visuals working in absolute synch with one another.

1000 hands - samsara

Although Samsara does tend to lose focus towards the end with scenes in Mecca, Palestine and Israel not really contributing a great deal (hence my not giving it a perfect score) – this slight reservation doesn’t in any way detract from the overall impact of the piece. And despite the descent into the abyss, the ending of the film   is ultimately uplifting.

A must-see on the big screen, Samsara is one of those rare films where language (verbal and written) is virtually useless in conveying the effect of experiencing it   first-hand. You just have to see it for yourself.

4 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4  – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Palace-Nova East End Cinemas, Adelaide, January 23rd 2013.

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.


From → film reviews

  1. Thanks Mossman – great post, and can’t wait to experience this one myself… From your review, sounds like, the latter part of the film is again on the theme of “Life Out of Balance”; a la `Koyaanisqatsi’… no doubt very emotionally-affective and profoundly thought-provoking. I am in awe of `Baraka’, and all his stuff… I wish we had more films made like this. (Or – maybe we do – and I just haven’t found them yet, LOL). The closest stuff seems to be `glimpses’ of the same sort of visual poetics in Malick’s stuff – which also always means, after the screening I have to go searching in the cinema for my socks. Anyway thanks, great review.

    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Joe! 🙂 Yeah, Fricke is definitely a living treasure. And I know what you mean too about Malick – very similar. They’re both living treasures! 🙂

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