Samsara (2011)

Review first published in S&S Sept 2012


Synopsis: Spectacular scenes of humanity and nature are mixed together into a non-verbal essay on the transience and cylicality of worldly affairs.

Review: Ron Fricke’s Samsara is named for a Sanskrit word (literally “to flow on”) used in a number of Eastern religions to denote the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. In keeping with this cyclical spirit, not only do images of circles here abound (timelapsed stars sweeping across the heavens, massed pilgrims circling the Kaaba in Mecca, a line of female Chinese dancers forming a ring of multiple arms), but the film itself adopts the organising structure of ring composition, bookending its disparate, transglobal ‘scenes’ between twinned sequences in which a group of shaven-headed monks are shown first forming (from multi-coloured powders), and then erasing, an elaborately crafted representation of the ‘wheel of life’ that itself, for Tibetan Buddhists like these, symbolises the principle of samsara. Even this creation and erasure of the powdery ‘wheel’, coming from and returning to dust, is made an apt emblem for the transience of the phenomenal world – a theme reinforced by images of rocks forming from flowing volcanic magma, and of half-buried communities reclaimed by the sand from which they once sprang. Also at the film’s opening and close are sequences of costumed girls dancing, their youth and movements capturing the fugitive nature of time.

Between this beginning and end – and Fricke and his co-writer Mark Magidson are positing a worldview where things are always in a fleeting state of ‘between’ – comes a spectacular kaleidoscope  of (mostly) human experience in all its variety and vanity, choreographed around a series of striking oppositions: nature and culture, spirituality and materialism, crowd and individual, luxury and poverty, war and peace. We are even shown an audience in a theatre (just like us!), while in another scene two of the actual filmmakers are seen reflected in the eyes of an African tribeswoman, as though to underline that Samsara itself is included within its own all-encompassing purview. Despite the absence of narrative or dialogue, the editing lays out its own free associative agenda , setting (for example) the tentacular curls of a woman’s dreadlocks against the convolutions of a metropolitan spaghetti junction, or the adjustments of plastic surgery against the chilly perfection of (sex) dolls. Some of these evocative contrasts arise from studied match cuts, while others, like that of a slum area and the opulent city towering above it, are achieved merely by tilting the camera. A few overtly ‘staged’ scenes, however, such as the man in the office (Olivier de Sagazan) who masks his face in layers of primitive make-up, or the geisha (Kikumaru) who delicately sheds a tear to camera, seem out of place and on the nose in an otherwise largely documentary film where the editing alone furnishes commentary enough.

Shot by Fricke in glorious 70mm at a variety of locations and speeds, Samsara comes with a dazzling visual beauty that demands to be seen on the big screen. It is, however, likely to divide its viewers into those who get right on board to turn on, tune in and drop out for its wide-eyed hippie trip (accompanied by an eclectic soundtrack of ‘world music’ and electronica), and those who find some of its easy juxtapositions and New Age sensibilities just a little facile, while wondering what advance it makes on previous non-verbal cosmo-anthropological eye candy like Koyaanisqatsi (1982, shot by Fricke), Baraka (1992, shot, directed, co-edited and co-written by Fricke), Bodysong (2003) and Our Daily Bread (2005), all of which Samsara decidedly recycles without ever quite renewing. Perhaps it is just another case of what goes around comes around.

Anton Bitel