Samsara Movie Review

Director: Ron Fricke
Editors: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson
Original music: Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard (ex Dead Can Dance), Marcello De Francisci
Running Time: 102 minutes
Australian release date: Wednesday 26th December
Reviewer 1: rolanstein (one-word verdict: unmissable)
Reviewer 2: Karen (one-word verdict: sobering)

About The Film:
SAMSARA (a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life”) is an unnarrated (non-verbal) documentary combining image and music. Filmmakers Fricke and Magidson shot footage in 25 countries over a period of almost 5 years using 70mm film, and developed a state-of-the-art digital conversion process to ensure “an unparalleled viewing experience with extraordinary levels of detail, clarity, and vibrance”. In similar style to their groundbreaking 1992 release BARAKA, but on a far grander scale, SAMSARA is a kaleidoscopic record of planet earth to this moment, taking in the human and natural environments, the mundane and the miraculous, sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites and natural wonders.

Review 1: (rolanstein)
Comprising only image and music, Samsara is essentially a sensory experience. Words are inappropriate to the task of communicating the sensory. Thus, writing a review that does justice to this stunning work is a daunting prospect.

After numerous false starts, I have decided that there is only one way to go and that is to take an entirely subjective approach (which goes against the grain as a critic, but so be it).

Actually, I’m not sure there is any other option here. The absence of narration confers on the audience an almost unrestrained freedom of interpretation; every viewer will take something different from the movie.

That is not to deny the manipulative possibilities of editing. To be sure, the filmmakers have brought various agendas to the assembling – and selection – of the images, but I am not going to deal with them here. Firstly, I’m not up to it on the strength of a single viewing; secondly, the filmmakers themselves give far better insight into their intentions than I can in this excellent interview:

Interview: The Filmmakers Behind Samsara
Recommendation: Read the interview AFTER you’ve seen the film.

In the early stages of the film, I appraised every sequence with knitted brow as one might a stills photograph in an exhibition, and indeed the superb cinematography lends itself to such scrutiny. The captures of the natural environment are ineffably grand and gorgeous, magnetic in their pull, the time-lapse transformations especially dramatic and mesmerising. With the human subjects you are compelled to move past the superficial, to search for essence, as in any great photograph. But soon I found that viewing the film in this way was too intense to sustain.

Slowly, I sank into a semi-conscious meditative state similar to that that envelops me at symphony concerts, where the sensory dominates the cerebral. This is a realm of aesthetics, mostly, where thoughts come and go uninsistently, unbidden. And so it was that I experienced most of the movie – as a quite wondrous melding of onward rolling perfectly complementary visuals and soundscape summoning the ancient and the modern, the ephemeral and timeless, the urban and rustic, the affluent and impoverished, the majesty, beauty and terror of nature, the best and worst of humanity, presented in state-of-the-art fidelity to form a composite moving snapshot of planet earth now.

One of the enduring sets of images for me, unaccountably moving at the time of viewing, is of some kids being baptised. Most are infants. Some react with delight when wet with the holy water, some look perturbed, some beatific, some startled, some frightened. An older child found humour in the situation. But in all cases, the subjects experienced – of course – only the sensation of wetness on their brows. Thus, this act of profound religious symbolism, and the poignant, futile hope behind it, is stripped of all but its simplest truth through the innocence of the child – that’s why I was moved. Others will see it very differently. Which is as it should be.

And so it goes for the rest of the work. I could detail my reactions to the appalling industrial chicken farms of Sweden, where even the slaughter process is automated. Or the heartbreaking stare of the young girl fixed on the lens from the window of her slum, eyes full of hurt, anger, resentment, bewilderment. Or the heaving claustrophobic ever-tightening spiral of hundreds of thousands of devotees at Mecca. Or the workers heaving sulphur on their bare blistered shoulders at a hellish mine in Indonesia. Or a sand-mandala that at the beginning of the movie is in the process of being painstakingly created grain by grain by a group of Tibetan monks, and at the end is ceremoniously obliterated with sweeps of their hands – a perfect metaphor for life, with its constant cycles of creation, destruction, regeneration, and for human endeavour, doomed to erasure in the fullness of time.

There are any number of other remarkable shots. But why impose my take on you?

Persuasion is not usually part of my agenda as a reviewer, but I can’t help proselytising here. I know better than to launch a shock-and-awe superlative offensive in this time of rampant hyperbole, so I’ll keep my propaganda campaign short and sweet.

Samsara sets a new high water mark in cinematographic art. Don’t limit your experience of this wondrous phenomenon to DVD/Blu-ray. See it on the big screen and marvel.

Review 2: (Karen)
You don’t need a course in film theory to know that choosing where to point a camera and cutting together footage in certain ways creates purposeful meaning. The name Samsara adds another layer. But Samsara, with its beautifully composed images juxtaposed and set to music, doesn’t hand you the meaning. This mesmerising, wordless film offers a dialogue that you participate in, complete with eye contact, in order to understand the story. It’s an experience that is both glorious and sobering.

The structure is satisfyingly circular: opening images of little boy monks swarming though a temple like red corpuscles are returned to at the end, and we see a painstakingly created coloured-sand mandala completed, then destroyed and swept up. In between, the camera roams far and wide capturing extraordinarily beautiful or terrible images of the physical world and its human inhabitants.

One theme emerges early: the impermanence of human achievement. Weather eroded statues and stupas riven by jungle growth made me think (for the second time this year!) of Shelley’s Ozymandias, whose statue lies ruined in the desert.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the filmmakers also had this poem in mind. These images are contrasted with enduring, implacable and massive forces of nature: volcanoes, glaciers, weather systems; and a series of images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hits you in the guts with the intimate details of how humans are connected with and at the mercy of such huge forces.

There are other themes: religion, for example, and manufacturing processes, but I would not want to preempt what you might think about the images by saying anything about the myriad thoughts that crowded into my head as I watched.

But I have to say something about the act of watching this film. Your normal role as a consumer of cinema – that is, as someone who sits in a cinema and watches a film – is passive. You gaze at the screen at fictitious depictions, or if it’s a documentary, at a mediated representation of…something. Here, in Samsara, director Fricke has posed his human subjects and asked them – and you have to assume he has given explicit direction here – to gaze at the camera, and by extension, back at us, the audience. I wondered what he could have said. “Make your face neutral.” “Just relax, look at the camera, and don’t change your expression.” Perhaps he stood next to the camera and said, “Just mirror my expression” and looked solemnly at them. Or lovingly.

Anyone who saw the documentary Marina Abramovic; The Artist Is Present on ABC TV will be in no doubt about the power of a sustained human gaze. These human subjects in Samsara – separated from us as they are by film, electricity, space and time, unlike Abramovic’s intervidiators (a made-up word for someone who exchanges eye contact with someone else, a visual interlocutor) – variously look impassive, or solemn, or proud, or slightly quizzical; in one moving case, a single tear leaks out. The effect is unsettling. Was my feeling of complicity with the subjects, or the filmmaker? Was I gazing at a screen, or a mirror?

It’s this effect that drives the rest of the story, and places the viewer at the heart of the sequences. The images in Samsara show humans in relation to the world of nature and of human endeavor in various forms, and we unavoidably draw conclusions about our own relation to those same environments and endeavours.

It’s all sounding pretty damn worthy, isn’t it? Don’t panic, you will not be bored. Samsara is an absorbing meditation on the human condition, visually luscious, and with the power to make you question your choices and way of life. The word trippy actually came to mind.

If I have one qualm, it’s that a performance piece about a third of the way in, and that has its own import, is a different medium and seems superfluous in the context of a film that uses its own language to such economical and powerful effect.

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3 thoughts on “Samsara Movie Review”

  1. Ha, complete agreement, it seems! I also didn’t want to mention a couple of the most powerful images so as not to take away the element of surprise or shock that occasionally occurs.

    I want everyone to see this film!

  2. And now I’ve read the interview you linked to, and I know how they directed their subjects! Fascinating. That is a brilliant interview, but I would suggest that people should see the film first, and then come back and read the interview.

  3. Fab review, Karen.

    Good point about it being best to read the interview I linked to AFTER seeing the film – thanks! I’ve added an appropriate recommendation to that part of my review.

    Actually, I’ve only just now read the interview right through. I’d only skimmed through it, which was enough to note that it covered territory I was grappling with far more accurately and efficiently than I could have. The thorough read-through revealed some interesting stuff that is in alignment with our observations and responses as articulated in the reviews. Good to know we received the movie as intended!

    I was especially relieved to read this: “We hope you can get to a place, an inner altered state, just from the film.” I was beating myself up for not staying intellectually present to the film, but gave up and surrendered to the semi-conscious meditative state that overtook me as the film progressed. Too severe on myself, it seems!

    That said, I’d love to see the film again, especially on one of the super-sized multiplex screens with state-of-the-art sound. That would come about as close as is possible to seeing it in a cinema set up for 70mm film. Shit, these are exciting times, with the constantly accelerating technological advances. It’s already possible to shoot commercial cinema quality movies on Canon and Nikon stills cameras that cost only a few thousand, and going by the guys’ comments in the interview, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

    Put this amazing technology in the hands of people with the expertise of Fricke and Magidson and WOW! Of course, technology is only half the story; you still need to know what to do with it. That’s gratifying – and a relief – when you think about it.


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