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Review: Samsara (2012)

Samsara (2012)

Directed by: Ron Fricke

Premise: A non-narrative documentary that cross-cuts people and locations across the globe, drawing broad parallels and suggesting that human civilization is trapped in a vicious cycle.

What Works: Samsara is a stunning piece of work. The movie was filmed in Panavision Super 70mm and the colors and detail are rich and vibrant. The score, largely provided by Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard, and Michael Stearns, matches the visuals perfectly and Samsara has a musical quality to its assembly. This film is a collage, not a story, and it is best understood as a cinematic poem. The title of Samsara refers to a term in Buddhism meaning “circle” or” wheel” and it describes the ideas that people are stuck in an cyclical existence of ignorance.  The same term is also used in Hinduism and other Eastern religions to describe similar concepts. The filmmakers of Samsara have set about trying to illustrate that idea on a truly epic scale and in large measure they succeed.  The film depicts its title concept by examining geographical and architectural structures, often with time laps photography that highlights the comings and goings in a day and captures a macro level view of broad systems like highways and cityscapes. While in each environment the filmmakers periodically pause on a member of the local community looking directly into the camera. Every time it happens the impact is disconcerting; as viewers we are accustomed to looking at a film and unused to it staring back at us. These faces alter the perspective of the film—and therefore the viewer—by zooming into the middle of environments that are otherwise distant and put a human face on the proceedings. The pause also breaks from the frequent time laps photography and places the viewer in the moment. The most interesting and challenging segments of Samsara come in the middle as the film includes a look at industrialization and mass production. It is here that the movie makes its most provocative suggestions as scenes of people working on assembly lines and consuming products in big box retailers are contrasted with imagery of livestock. The filmmakers cleverly bring the means of production, the producers, and the product closer and closer together, culminating in a sequence that is among the most haunting in the film. Later sections of the movie are equally fascinating, especially those filmed within holy sites like Mecca; although Samsara is, for lack of a better word, a spiritual movie, what its makers suggest about religion is ambiguous. The collage of images and the ideas that they suggest both individually and collectively makes Samsara a challenging film but it is a challenge well worth it.

What Doesn’t: Samsara asks a lot of contemporary audiences who have been conditioned to expect cinema to conform to a narrow narrative style with hyperkinetic camera movement and rapid edits. This film has not been created with mainstream narrative viewing habits in mind. The picture is a feature length but because it is so different from the kinds of movies that the average filmgoer attends, watching it may be a frustrating experience. That frustration is actually to the film’s credit and the very thing that justifies its existence. The filmmakers hold shots for lengthy periods of screen time so that the audience will watch and engage with the images and consider what they mean, especially when those images or sequences are juxtaposed with others. If the filmmakers come up short in any way, it may be that some of the juxtapositions are more obvious than others and a few are a bit too obvious.

Bottom Line: Samsara is the kind of film that warrants multiple viewings but it is well worth the time invested. The picture demands attention in a way that mainstream cinema often does not but for those who persevere the film has much to reveal.

Episode: #424 (January 27, 2013)