Forget what you've heard or read about Samsara. Non-narrative, dialogue-free, whatever. It is a completely immersive film experience—fascinating from the moment its first images appear on screen until the credits roll.
In its 99 minutes, it covers the gamut of human existence and that non-narrative dialogue-free structure seems less and less like an accurate description. This movie knows what it is, knows what it wants to convey and then sets about telling its story in a way that makes perfect sense.
The press notes for Samsara helpfully point out "samsara is a Sanskrit word that means 'the ever turning wheel of life.'" Luckily I read that after I saw the picture, otherwise I may have judged this movie based on that criterion alone.
Director Ron Fricke told me in an interview that he and producer Mark Magidson worked with a theme of interconnection, focusing on birth, death and rebirth. It's easy to see those connections in the images that roll past, from the close-up of King Tut's death mask to the inventor sitting next to a robot made in his likeness, to Buddhist monks creating and then destroying a sand mandala.
Fricke and Magidson have traveled down similar roads before. Their work together includes Baraka (1992) and the short Chronos (1985). Fricke also was cinematographer and co-editor on Godfrey Reggio's fascinating Koyaanisqatsi (1982).
Samsara seems to rise to an even higher level than those films (and that's not a knock on any of them). Whatever the reasons, Samsara fires on all thrusters.
But back to the images. Samsara contains Fricke's uniformly excellent time-lapse photography, which covers deserts, archaeological finds and even driving ranges, among other locations.
There are also portraits, in which human subjects stare directly into the camera for an extending period of time. It sounds like a cheesy exercise, but somehow, these disparate groups of people—Americans holding rifles, a geisha, a Himba woman in Africa and more—are the most powerful. It's almost as if the subjects are staring the audience down.
The most simply beautiful images, though, are the long takes of various landscapes—a standout being the temples at Pagan in Myanmar (or Burma, if you're Sylvester Stallone). Samsara was shot in 70mm and the format seems tailor-made for this kind of movie. The bursting colors and sheer magnitude of the areas Fricke captures come across in ways that fall short in 35mm.
All these images alone don't add up to much other than pretty pictures, so their juxtaposition takes on meaning. One of the themes running through the cycle of birth, death and rebirth seems to be humankind's ability to pervert and make abominable that which is beautiful and sublime. Take, for example, the shots of the dairy factory where hundreds of Holsteins are hooked to milkers, or the poultry factory where chickens are herded, via machinery, into yet more machinery that spits them, still alive, into drawers for transportation.
The music deserves a special mention, too. Composer Michael Stearns, along with Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, have created the perfect soundscapes to accompany the story Fricke and Magidson tell.
Really, there's endless description and accolades that could be poured on to Samsara, but words can't do justice to the experience. And because we're dealing with wordless storytelling, this film will also likely be a subjective experience for each viewer.
There will be quibblers and naysayers out there who view this film as just a bunch of beautiful images strung together with new-age music. Those quibblers and naysayers probably didn't see the same movie I did. It's best to view Samsara with an open mind and—though it's probably not possible—without preconceived notions of what cinema is or is not. This movie is easy to get sucked into and, if you let it, it can be an otherworldly experience without leaving the comforts of your local theater.
CCA Cinematheque, PG-13, 99 min.