Complex and Rewarding
Although best seen in a movie theater, Samsara, recently released on DVD, is a visual feast on any screen. It's the latest venture from the American team of director Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magidson of Baraka fame. The film took over five years to complete and was filmed in 25 countries. There is no narrative. It is simply a series of striking and, at times, breathtaking visuals. Some only grace the screen briefly, while others linger, giving the film an ebb and flow that defies interpretation. And that is its genius. The individual images speak for themselves. It is a gorgeous 70mm film that takes you on an unforgettable journey around the planet. Samsara is the Eastern notion of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.
Some sequences are so stunning that by themselves they make the film worth viewing. Among these are the burnt sienna temple complex bathed in ethereal light at Bagan, Myanmar, the exquisite gold bedecked 1,000-hand goddess from Beijing, and the night scene in speckled shades of light and dark of a sea of pilgrims bowing in unison at Mecca. Tibetan monks traditionally destroy the mandala they have painstakingly created. Droves of trash pickers wander through hills of rotting refuse at a dump in Manilla. Cameras pan the enormous (an understatement) EUPA factory city in China. Unusual images keep popping up in this film. There's a scene of a man who is completely covered in tattoos delicately cradling an infant, and one of a manikin-like human face peering out from rows of doll heads.
The film is a weaving of close-ups and panoramas. Faces never smile but seem frozen with dour expressions. Time-lapse photography sequences are interjected periodically to good effect. Fast food restaurant diners gorge themselves frenetically. Clouds race across the face of Mono Lake. The intense colors of so many shots give the screen a vibrating glow. Unprotected workers slowly carry their loads of shiny rocks up from the incandescent yellow of a sulfur mine.
Image after image and not one word. The movie is best consumed by simply drinking in these images without judgment, without analysis. You may find some scenes so compelling that you become inspired to research locales.
Michael Stearns, who also composed the music for Baraka, is joined by Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci in creating the original score. The music stands on its own merits and never diminishes the visuals.
An Earlier Masterpiece: Baraka
And now for the earlier film, Baraka (1992): Baraka is a Sufi word meaning essence or blessing. This film is special and must be counted among cinematic masterpieces. Although it moves between scenes of the natural world and manufactured landscapes as in Samsara, the clustering of sequences of tribal dances and rituals and spiritual seekers in meditation and prayer provide a fitting balance to the scenes of urban sprawl and frenetic to-and-fro. Because of these sequences the film feels more spiritually grounded than Samsara.
In one scene, a monk walks slowly through a busy city street. He rings a bell between each achingly deliberate step as others scurry past paying him not the slightest bit of attention. Sufi dervishes spin round and round, their floating white skirts accenting the austere trance of the dancers. We see huge swaths of destruction like the post-war burning Kuwaiti oil fields and the scars on the earth imposed by industrial mining operations. Human remains burn on a funeral pyre at the Ganges. From the Himalayan crest to fiery volcanoes, from Angkor Wat to Auschwitz Baraka's images are simply mesmerizing.
After watching these films you may not look at the planet or our human species in quite the same way, but then this is what a camera is for.
Fred P. has been a film fan for forever.