Now playing in the Triangle at the Colony Theater in Raleigh, the Galaxy Cinema in Cary, and the Chelsea Theatre in Chapel Hill:
“Samsara” (Dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)
For the first twenty minutes or so, I was entranced by the visual power of this new documentary by director and cinematographer Ron Fricke, best known for “Baraka” (1992).
With no narration, and no titles, it felt ideal to be alone with my thoughts being engulfed into sweeping shots of exotic locales, intense close-ups of people and historic art, and the infinite horizons of endless landscapes. From footage filmed all over the world (twenty-five countries on five continents) over five years, Fricke was weaving together a lyrical look at our world right now, a sort of cinematic status update, and I was digging it.
But then it cuts to a French performance artist (Olivier de Sagazan) sitting at a desk in suit and tie. Sagazan smothers his face in grey clay, applies red and black makeup, then wiping all the gunk away into his hair, and repeating the process crazily over and over. It’s disturbing, and didn’t appeal to me, yet I get how it’s supposed to fit – Sagazan’s piece is called “Transfiguration,” and samsara means the ‘eternal cycle of life’ so it shows that Fricke’s splices of life can be beautiful, but can also be very messy.
Many of the locations are instantly recognizable – some might take a minute, some may have to be looked up later. When taking in the lavish photography of such iconic landmarks as the Pyramids of Giza, the Vatican, and Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world, which was prominently featured in the last “Mission Impossible”), I thought of how many films use these same locations, but only in establishing shots – they don’t explore them and make them wash over you the way “Samsara” does.
And then there’s some more disturbing stuff – a sequence that takes us from a food processing plant where we see chickens getting slaughtered by a combine harvester (heavily recalling “Food Inc.”), to the flow of shoppers at a Costco, and we visit a Burger King with fat Americans stuffing their faces. Again, yes, the cycle of life is often disgusting, but can we please get back to the sweeping shots of gorgeous scenery, please?
I’m only kidding, because much of the material dealing with ugliness is moving and honest. I just preferred seeing Buddhist monks making a sand mandala, or the close to concluding time lapse aerial footage of thousands of Muslim pilgrims circling the holiest shrine in Islam, the Qaaba. As the camera pulls back the sped-up swirl of humanity that can be seen from a great distance is staggering and somewhat surreal.
The accompanying soundtrack by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello de Francisci really gives Fricke’s collection of immaculate imagery a pulse and a heartbeat, which made my feet tap at times.
The vividly colorful “Samsara” is a movie I love to see again, but only under two conditions: 1. If I could see it in 70mm, the way it’s supposed to seen. 2. If I could sit it a big comfy recliner so that I could lean forward during the pretty parts, and lean back to get some distance during the parts that are hard to watch.
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