Here is a sublime film with no story, no dialogue and no characters. Flowing with ethereal beauty and heavy platitude, in Samsara (made by the creators of Baraka, the 1992 transcendental globetrotting epic) the star is again a Panavision 70mm camera with its striking luminosity. With National Geographic-like portraits spanning six continents, Samsara delivers a grandiose cinematic essay on the flow of nature and civilization.
The movie offers a purifying break from conventional narrative. There is a cathartic choreography of mesmerizing images based on spirituality and sand, the souls of people, and the planet. The eyes of Hindu gods lead to an exploding volcano that overtakes the screen and then carries us to the contours of weathered faces and verdant hills speckled with temples, building up to the magnificently disciplined creation of a vivid Tibetan sand mandala signifying the wheel of life (samsara is a Sanskrit word that means "the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth"). We then soar across mountainous sand dunes to the devastated ruins of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, and around the world we go.
Cloaked in a New Age score, these crystal creamy pictures transported me from the daily tedium of diatribes and yammering melodramas to a higher realm of connection. Exquisite cinematography offers otherworldly access to places I will never see in my lifetime -- the Thikse Monastery in India and the Epupa Falls in Angola.
And just as my shoulders melted in a cathedral, I became aware of the unrelenting music and its role in the film’s rhetorical message. The transcendental spell was broken with a nightmarish portrayal of civilization's grotesque by a French performance artist, leading us to the irritable drumming and staccato of commuters and call centers.
Director and cinematographer Ron Fricke says Samsara is a film about flow and the organic circle of life. It builds on Baraka by also showing the darker side of what happens when the natural flow is disrupted, particularly in the manufacturing of mass goods, the excess of slaughterhouses and Costcos, and the commodification of sex.
In Samsara, the rhetoric weighs on the film and brings the viewer (in my case, reluctantly) down to earth, to that sinkhole of tedium. Nonetheless, the magnificence of the film is in the dancing, transcendental clarity of the camera, and the expanse of its visual lexicon. — Joy-Marie Scott
Dir. Ron Fricke; writ. Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson (not rated)
Opened Fri, Sep 14, at the AMC Rivercenter, 849 E Commerce Street (210-228-0351)