The title of Samsara comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever-turning wheel of life,” although the term turns out to have little to do with the finished film. This film, like Koyanisqaatsi and Chronos (which Ron Fricke photographed) and Baraka (which he directed), is a plot-less, wordless collection of images. Shot in 25 countries on cumbersome 65mm cameras over a period of five years, they conjure up a combination of curiosity and awe in the viewer.
But to ask why or how these images relate to each other is to miss the point. Fricke, once again taking the role of director, isn’t as interested in engaging you intellectually as he is in enrapturing you with natural and man-made sights, all of them mind-blowing: the spewing lava of an enormous volcano; astonishing rock formations that seem to have been created on computers; the wrecked homes left behind by a horrific sand storm; a montage of babies being baptized; a shirtless man, his body completely covered with tattoos, tenderly cradling his child.
Part of the appeal of Samsara is that you never know what Fricke will show you next. Some shots incite great curiosity, such as office workers sitting at impossibly clean and tidy cubicles with only a laptop and a pencil cup holder on their desks (what do these people do?). Other shots use perspective to create wonder: a group of long peninsulas, stretching out into the ocean like fingers on a hand, completely covered by huge homes that seem to have been built from identical blueprints (who lives there?).
As in his previous films, Fricke uses time-lapse photography at regular intervals, showing us the precise drudgery of assembly-line workers at a factory that makes clothes irons, or the always-popular shots of nighttime cityscapes and their patterns of bustling traffic. For most of Samsara, the director doesn’t seem interested in invoking any particular emotional response in the viewer: Only occasional shots — a chicken farm where the animals are roughly swept up by a spinning duster and presumably sent to their doom, piglets climbing over each other to feed from the teats of enormous, immobile sows — carry any sort of specific ecological message.
Most of Samsara — which was scored by the trio of Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci but could have used Phillip Glass’ symphonic, hypnotic music — opts to marvel instead. The movie is hypnotic regardless of its focus, whether it’s a group of monks delicately pouring grains of colored sand on elaborate tapestries that would seem impossible to recreate with regular paint, or a gun factory where firearms and bullets are assembled by the thousands. Achingly beautiful and visually transfixing, Samsara offers a transporting vacation from the usual multiplex fare. It’s a movie to get lost in.
Director: Ron Fricke.
Screenwriters: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson.
Producer: Mark Magidson.
An Oscilloscope Laboratories release. Running time: 99 minutes. Brief nudity, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.