SAMSARA is a film that is filled with breathtaking shots of majestic vistas and people going about their daily lives. And yet, the most amazing thing in the entire film is arguably the simplest and most scripted moment in the entire thing. A man (performance artist Olivier de Sagazan)sits at a plain table, against a grey backdrop. He is dressed in a fine suit. He ritualistically opens a jar of clay and smears it all over his face. He splashes ink on his eyes and smears red makeup across his lips, a grotesque mirror of the human face, simultaneously ugly and beautiful. He then violently shakes, ruining his work and doing it all over again at least twice more, his suit destroyed, all illusions of refinement obliterated in the violent, savage cycle of birthing this creation over and over again. This is all part of de Sagazan’s “Transfiguration” performance, something I was unaware of until watching this film. It is a moment so powerful that I let out an involuntary audible exclamation while sitting in the all but empty theatre. It is one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen committed to film.
“Samsara” is a Sanskrit word, meaning “wheel of life” (but you knew that already, right?). The film is the culmination of a five-year endeavor from filmmaker Ron Fricke. Fricke started out as a cinematographer on the classic visual documentary KOYAANISQATSI. He continued along that same tradition in various shorts throughout the next ten years, finally culminating in the critically acclaimed feature-length film BARAKA in 1992. SAMSARA marks Fricke’s first film in twenty years.
Although de Sagazan’s routine in one of the more unusual moments in Fricke’s film, it straddles the theme wonderfully. The film is a wordless narrative, displaying examples of the never-ending cycle of creation, destruction and mostly the quest for survival in between. It explores the nature of the world and what we have done with our time in it. Throughout the film, either in manmade structures or manmade rituals, patterns emerge. There is a sense of symmetry and efficiency from the most exalted symbols to the most mundane tasks. SAMSARA spends it’s running time exploring this uniformity and symmetry in all it’s beauty, all it’s horror.
The film starts out offering what one would expect of its pedigree. Slow tracking shots of windswept sand dunes, a volcano’s chaotic eruption, time-lapse footage of ancient ruins from long forgotten cultures. But to call SAMSARA merely a series of pretty pictures misses the point entirely. And it doesn’t explain how one addresses the many provocative transitions in the film, such as when we suddenly cut from a series of ancient ruins to devastation from Hurricane Katrina. Suddenly, broken columns and shattered clay pots give way to debris-covered church pews and cars that seem to have been dropped from the sky.
SAMSARA is not merely concerned with static structures. It also explores people in a very confrontational way. Everyone from tribespeople to gun enthusiasts to scarred soldiers to Buddhist monks look directly into the camera without saying a word. It’s as if they are staring the audience down. You don’t dare look away. Your only option is to look deep into those eyes and imagine the whirlwind that lies behind them.
This was the most unexpected and welcome surprise from SAMSARA. To merely make a gorgeous looking film would have been achievement enough, though ultimately an empty one. Instead, SAMSARA seems to be giving us a look at the cyclic patterns that emerge in our lives. Whether it be people picking trash, monks making an intricate work of art out of sand, or the mundane ka-chung ka-chung of the assembly line.
It also tackles the absurdity of modern culture. Lifelike cybernetic robots make way for a Japanese nightclub in which girls dance (rhythmically, of course) and wear numbers on their panties for eager customers to reference. Where do the machinations end and where does the humanity begin? The film is even able to give us brief moments of humor, such as the silent human automatons working in office cubicles accompanied by a soundtrack of what sounds an awful lot life Gregorian chants.
SAMSARA is an amazing looking film which entices with its imagery and then provokes with what that imagery might be saying. Visually, the film is nothing short of breathtaking. If it does not win the Oscar for Best Cinematography, it is likely an unfortunate oversight. If it is not nominated, then the entire category is a fraud.
Some might question the need for a film like such as this in our age of mass media. After all, there are a great many cable channels that claim to offer this same type of entertainment. Maybe, but they don’t offer the thought-provoking material of SAMSARA. They don’t offer the grandeur of 70mm film projected on a big screen. Plus, a cursory look at the commercialization of the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel and similar stations proves that we may need films like this now more than ever.
It would be laying it on a bit too thick to say the film is always arresting. In fact, there are a few moments when SAMSARA can overstay its welcome. Provocative or no, it’s hard to justify a running time much over ninety minutes for this material. Still, the time flies by much quicker than one would expect.
SAMSARA is one of those films you experience as it unfolds, not realizing how much it has affected you until much later. Not a film for the casual viewer, it challenges the audience. It offers no answers, believing the questions are more important. And yet, for all it’s provocation, it gives us something that we often seem to forget. It gives us the opportunity to look at the world through new eyes, to view nature and civilizations in the most audacious or intimate ways possible. It gives our jaded, cynical hearts a chance to experience awe once again.
It’s a beautiful world. ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for some disturbing and sexual images
– Running Time: 1hr 42mins.