Movie Review: Samsara
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The documentary "Samsara" is a ravishing visual experience, but it carries a message that at least some viewers will find less than compelling. It's not a message conveyed in words — the film has no dialogue or narration — but it comes through loud and clear.
Director and cinematographer Ron Fricke ("Baraka") has put together the movie equivalent of one of those eye-popping National Geographic photo spreads about far-flung peoples and places. The movie is a flow of dazzling sequences presented without overt connections.
We see, at various points, Buddhist monks creating a sand mandala; stained glass windows in a cathedral; the manufacture of guns and sex dolls; people praying at the Wailing Wall; erupting volcanoes; garbage pickers; the mountains of Yosemite; an infant being baptized; gun owners; workers in a sulfur mine; meat processing factories; office employees toiling in cubicles; and on and on.
Fricke, who worked with producer, co-writer and co-editor Mark Magidson, shot the film in 70mm over five years and in 25 countries. The resulting imagery is spectacular and often surreal, and, coupled with a hypnotic score, it's almost guaranteed to produce a trancelike state.
But, despite its wordlessness, it certainly has an agenda. Natural and manmade wonders are clearly being contrasted to the dehumanization caused by modern civilization, and various spiritual activities are shown. The film is implicitly advocating a New Age or holistic perspective, with a dollop of Eastern religion added for good measure. (The title is Sanskrit meaning "wheel of life.")
This is well and good for devotees, but more skeptical types may find it simplistic and heavy-handed. As beautiful as the images are, they often feel like a form of visual badgering.
Even if you don't buy the film's agenda, you'll see things that will stick with you, such as a coffin in the shape of a pistol, or masses of Filipino prisoners performing dance-like exercises.
Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that this is spiritualism lite, and laid on thick. Fricke has called the film a "guided meditation," but I'd have preferred a good deal less guidance.
Rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown.