Published on December 24th, 2012

samsara4By Laurence Barber

Director: Ron Fricke
Writers: Ron Fricke & Mark Magidson (concept and treatment)
Length: 99 min.

I first saw¬†Samsara at a surprise screening. I had a sneaking suspicion it would be the film shown, and when it was named I was both excited – I had been anticipating it for months – and bemused at the prospect of this babbling audience watching a wordless, non-narrative documentary. As predicted, people began to walk out shortly after the titles came up. The beautiful, moving imagery and wonderful score accompanying it apparently weren’t enough.

It struck me how disappointing it is that a film like this isn’t made more often or released often enough, because if these filmmaking conventions were a little more prevalent then perhaps audiences might be less close-minded. Walking out of a film is insulting to a film-maker. It shows an unwillingness to engage with a piece of art. It’s like judging the Mona Lisa on a tiny patch in the bottom left-hand corner. It’s also insulting to your fellow film-goers, because it says, “Look at you chumps, enduring this garbage! I’m far too high and mighty to sit in a comfortable chair for a couple of hours and try and open my mind to new cinematic experiences, good or bad!”

Samsara is such a fascinating film experience that it’s all the more disappointing to see, and know, that people won’t engage with such a rich, often harrowing, but always beautiful work of art. One of only a handful of feature films shot entirely on 70mm over the last couple of¬†decades, the cinematography here is literally breath-taking; I found myself holding my breath during the immediate post-titles sequence, an aerial view of the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar, which makes the viewer feel like a god surveying their creation.¬†Samsara must be seen in a cinema for this location alone.

The film spends much of its first half in a sort of bygone era, focusing on the spiritual, tribal and historical, before transitioning into the world we know but may not see, from sandstorm-ravaged houses to flood-ravaged schools. Bustling transit and mass production of food, weapons and household luxuries contrast sharply with Philippine slums, where children work in garbage dumps just to survive, or workers in an Indonesian sulfur mine.

Ron Fricke, cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio 1982), employs his knowledge of time-lapse footage to incredible effect, showcasing the passage of light time in the wondrous Antelope Canyon in Arizona, and making the lights of traffic in a sprawling metropolis resemble a beautiful version of Tron (Steven Lisberger 1982).

The view from atop a Burmese monastery - 12,000ft above sea level.The film’s title is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘continuous flow.’¬† The filmmakers researched locations that would fit its religious use as a term referring to the repeating cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation. What emerges is one of the most beautifully-shot films ever made, but one that is ripe with interpretative meaning, where surely no two people will have the same reaction to each sequence, so many more unforgettable than the last.

Shot in 25 countries over five years, this is a towering achievement of the moving image. That it also invites us to contemplate civilisations both worlds and seemingly eras away, as well as confronts us with complex moral quandaries, is all the better. While the film becomes slightly sermonic at times, its power cannot be denied, from the sequence of a boundless martial arts demonstration, to a frenetic scene of a man transforming himself into a vivid clay-covered horror, to the commodification of women in a sex doll factory, all the way to the powerful gaze of a geisha, a single tear running down her perfectly-painted face.

This is an indelible, unforgettable film that seeps into your very skin.

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  1. Posted by Myles Trundle on January 22nd, 2013, 12:01 [Reply]

    Great review Laurence! I completely agree with

    I saw ‘Samsara’ on the weekend and I was blown away. I think the clay man performance art scene was a highlight for me – it was so unexpected and confronting, I still can’t stop thinking about it.

    After watching ‘Baraka’ the week before, I was surprised to see ‘Samsara’ revisit many of the same/similar locations (sex doll factory, Mecca, the Wailing Wall, etc) but the movies had very different feels to them. Where ‘Baraka’ seemed to move through numerous themes fairly quickly, to me ‘Samsara’ shifted through its subjects much more gradually before eventually finishing with its wonderful cyclical ending at the Buddhist temple.

    As you said, it’s a real shame there aren’t more of these films being made.


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