Another globetrotting “think piece” from the director of Baraka, Ron Fricke’s sumptuous Samsara likewise focuses on transcendence and temporality, using exquisite time-lapse photography and immersive 70mm cinematography to examine manifestations of spiritual aspiration around the world. Lacking any overt narrative, Samsara intends its flow of gorgeous imagery to serve as some kind of guided meditation. Whether the camera soars through the luminous interiors of a Gothic cathedral, impeccably frames a troupe of Balinese dancers imitating a many-limbed goddess, or hovers above a sea of Islamic pilgrims circumambulating the Qaaba in Mecca (an image that suggests satellite footage of a hurricane swirling about its unmoving eye), Samsara succeeds in inspiring awe. The world music-friendly soundtrack (courtesy of Michael Stearns, Marcello de Francisci, and Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance fame) abets in establishing this mood of hushed wonderment. Akin to the multifaceted score, the film seems to possess a loose quasi-musical structure.
Like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, on which Fricke served as cinematographer, Samsara gets a lot of mileage out of juxtaposing the splendor of natural landscapes with the hurly-burly of human activity. Rivers of sand morph into massive streams of jammed-up traffic; the labyrinthine rock walls of Petra give way to the concrete canyons of the modern megalopolis. These luminous cityscapes possess a sort of ideological neutrality, beautiful and appalling in equal measure. Less appealing are the cavernous factories staffed by identically uniformed workers assembling plasticized household goods. It’s during these latter montage sequences that Fricke stumbles.
Winding them up with too-obvious visual punch lines that knock the viewer out of the film’s captivating rhythms, Fricke clobbers them over the head with Morgan Spurlock-style cheap shots: Scenes of massive food-processing facilities lead to shots of overweight customers cramming fast food down their gullets. Munitions manufacturers churning out bullets by the boxcar are in turn followed by a disfigured veteran posed against the endless white crosses at Arlington. Blatantly sexualized advertising gets it in the neck, too, with the tableau of a burqa-clad woman standing in front of a billboard emblazoned with a half-naked fashion model.
Koyaanisqatsi, with its title derived from a Hopi Native American word meaning “life out of balance,” suggested the fundamentally deleterious influence of late-industrial capitalism on being human. During its protracted second movement, Samsara openly acknowledges these ills, only to backpedal from any but the most heavy-handed social criticism, retreating to the easy pleasures of the purely aesthetic. In other words, Samsara washes its hands of sublunary woes, the more easily to embrace its transcendental inclinations. Happily, these infractions aren’t egregious enough to capsize the film entirely.
Shifting gears, Samsara moves into a realm both rich and strange, where animatronics meet Thai “ladyboys.” The similitude of lifelike sex dolls and the radical otherness of gender-bending performance art both suggest the often uncanny nature of human desire, entranced by the ever-shifting dance of identity and alterity. Thereafter—befitting a film named after the Sanskrit term for the endless cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation—Samsara loops back around to its own beginning. The film is effectively bookended by footage of Buddhist monks assiduously constructing and then dismantling an elaborate mandala sand painting. Obviously, Fricke wants these images to stand for the film as a whole: a brightly hued bauble, fit for rapturous contemplation.