Samsara (2011) Review

Ron Fricke has made a name for himself in the world of experimental and documentary cinema with his wordless, haunting time-lapse features. With his previous films, Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi, he focused on human atrocities and damage towards nature, while also demonstrating the world’s natural beauty. With Samsara, he continues this focus, but with a 21st century outlook, and a focus on rebirth and renewal. Using wide lenses and 70 MM film, he spent five years traveling across the globe, shooting his latest look at existence.

Fricke opens the film with a three minute sequence of Balinese dancers moving about, each of whom maintains perfect, unblinking eye contact with the camera for the duration of the dance. The sequence is haunting and uncomfortable, and establishes Fricke as someone who will himself refuse to look away from the uncomfortable aspects of humanity. He then follows the dance sequence immediately with an explosion, as if to say “this is the old culture…and now it’s gone. Thank you western civilization.” For even as the film refrains from ever speaking any dialogue or offering context to its images, it does not invite one to solely draw their own conclusions from the footage. The film has been intentionally edited to tell a story, to consistently illustrate the destruction wrought by certain aspects of consumerism and industry. Fricke finds endless variations of circular movement (visitors to Mecca, Americans on an exercise bike, guests at a water park, cows on a spinning wheel in a dairy farm, and a Buddhist Monk’s prayer mat) to demonstrate the cyclical nature of rebirth and destruction wrought by society. He punctuates the films with death masks from cultures around the world, corpses from atrocities, buildings destroyed by bombs, punctuated by montages of Baptisms. The juxtapositions would make Kuleshov proud. By his editing, these unrelated images work together to tell a very clear story about Samsara, the endlessly spinning Hindu wheel of life.  His look at humanity examines more than merely life and death, however. It also links cultures together. In one particularly disturbing sequence, the film looks in unflinching detail as chickens are slaughtered by a machine that moves through the flock, grinding chickens up, and ejecting the corpses onto a conveyer belt, which are then sliced up in mass in a meat production plant. The sequence is difficult to watch, and made more horrifying, when the birds-eye wide shot of the factory interior transitions into an identical overhead shot of a Costco, with customers buying meat in bulk. The same montage includes workers marking up meat, which is paired with a clip of a plastic surgeon marking up a man’s large cut for liposuction. The choices of these clips is both disturbing and creative, if remarkably un-subtle. On other occasions, the film depicts an African village where children proudly play amongst guns placed alongside an American family where the 10 year olds proudly show off their own firearms. He seems to be making a statement about the similarities of everything humanity does, no matter where in the globe.

The film also includes a fascinating choice of sounds. Often only the music carries the film, yet there are many moments of recorded sounds of wind blowing, the brass clinking of bullets, and trumpets blown on camera make their way into the sound-scheme. The music does much of the talking, however. There is one sequence where a man plasters himself in clay and food coloring, which trumpets explode with the sounds of a feral animal in the score, acting as sound effects for the man on screen. Throughout, Lisa Gerrard, of Gladiator fame, provides haunting vocals to underlay much of the footage.

One could talk about the cinematography in the film, but really, the film IS the cinematography. The film is watchable because of its lush images. The sheer amount of footage required for every sequence, and the creativity with which it was done is astonishing. Fricke, who also acted as Director of Photography for the film uses wide lenses to emphasize the extraordinary depth in many of his wide shots. Shots of Angkor Wat in Cambodia are particularly astonishing. He relies on natural lighting, but spends all day shooting, so as to capture nature at all the right times (there is quite a bit of “Magic Hour” work here.) His closeups are equally haunting, though. The tattoos, eyes, and painted Frescoes captured in lush detail are mesmerizing. Fricke is clearly a master of image composition. He knows how to choose the most beautiful areas of nature, but he also knows how to position and frame a shot, to make these locations look the best they possibly could.

In short, Samsara is mesmerizing to watch, if utterly lacking in subtlety and a little overlong. It paints a caustic yet simultaneously worshipful look at humanity and existence. It seems to be saying look how beautiful the world and life are. I want to preserve them. Much of the footage juxtaposition suggests that in Fricke’s eyes, this preservation may not happen. But his bookends for the film, of Buddhist monks creating lavish sand paintings that they immediately destroy and start over on, suggests that he is trying to let humanity know, that even if we destroy ourselves, the wheel of Samsara will keep turning and start us over again. Life finds a way.

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