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Non-Review Review: Samsara

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

Director Ron Fricke first came to attention as the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s groundbreaking Koyaanisqatsi. His contributions to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith not withstanding, he has somewhat followed in the footsteps of Reggio, offering up a series of films without character or narrative that explore man’s relationship with the world around him. Samsara is another entry in the canon that includes Chronos and Sacred Site, and is a direct sequel to Baraka. It goes almost without saying that Fricke’s cinematography is transcendental. Set to music by frequent collaborator Michael Stearns (with Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci), there’s no denying that Fricke has a canny and incredible eye for beauty. That said, Samsara does suffer a bit from being heavy-handed with its central themes and ideas – quite an accomplishment for a film with no dialogue.

Armed with ideas…

The movie transports us all around the world. The list of locations cited in the closing credits are truly impressive – it’s clear that Samsara is an ambitious project with an epic scope. It seems that there isn’t a place on Earth that Fricke hasn’t visited to capture footage. Filmed on glorious 70mm, and converted to crisp 4K resolution, it transforms the cinema screen into a mysterious portal, through which Fricke bleeds just the smallest glimpse of the planet. There are some shots of Notre Dame that almost induce vertigo, such is the skill of Fricke in rendering his vision and bringing it to life. The movie also involves itself on a more intimate scale – with carefully choreographed dance routines bookending the film and adding a smaller glimpse of the beauty of the world around us.

If you don’t get a chance to see it in a theatre, I imagine that it will look just as good on the right home media system. Baraka is considered one of the benchmarks of the blu ray format, and I see no reason why Samsara won’t be measured alongside it – at least in a technical manner. Michael Stearns’ score is, as ever, in perfect tandem with Fricke’s imagery. This type of non-narrative film is the most precise form of cinematic ballet, without dialogue or plot to communicate with the viewer, the union of sound and vision needs to work perfectly. And, to be frank, it does.

Put your head on straight…

However, Samsara suffers a bit from being a bit… well… blunt when it comes to its central themes and ideas. Suddenly, about half-an-hour into the film, we’re presented with a piece of performance art giving us an artist’s observations on the day-to-day experiences of office life. It is surreal, and very stylish, but it feels a little too obvious. After that point, Fricke returns to his shots of beautiful landscapes and exploring the various ways that we interact, and the way that we structure or society. However, then you notice the staring. Fricke seems to punctuate his film with shots of various people staring at the camera. These are typically poor people, or those disenfranchised or ignored. They are staring through the camera, and they are not happy.

It isn’t enough to show us massive dumps created by excessive consumption, we have to see a local staring out of the screen at us, looking some strange mixture of sad and angry. Apparently the imagery of guns and bullets (including a coffin shaped like a gun) were so subtle and nuanced that we needed a shot of people looking sad holding weapons, accusing us with their eyes through the screen. Similarly, it isn’t enough to show us the unsettling commercialisation of sex, we need shots of women crying. It doesn’t help that almost everybody seems to be looking through the screen with a disapproving grimace – it seems a tad rude to accuse your audience so directly. It also shows a remarkable lack of faith in them – we aren’t so lost in the wonderful cinematography that we’ll miss the metaphors and threads being developed.

A work of art…

I suspect that part of the problem is the way that Fricke seems to want to offer a more intimate portrayal of mankind’s quirky and eccentric habits, without losing any of the majestic scale that we expect in films like this. So he needs to move along from one idea to another rather quick, finding a focus point and then moving on. It lends the movie a slightly rushed feeling, especially as we come towards the end. I prefer the almost detached grace of Koyaanisqatsi to this hyperactive attempt to unite the intimate and the epic. It’s not a major problem, but I think it explains why we get the more blunt uses of metaphor and the other shortcuts – Fricke has a lot of material to cover in a short amount of time, and he’s struggling to balance both large- and small-scale ideas.

It’s a shame, because Fricke actually has some wonderful streams of consciousness going on, and it’s wonderful when you seem to catch one, riding it like a wave to its eventual conclusion, spotting the segues and the transitions. In one wonderful sequence in the middle of the film, Fricke hits on any number of incredibly vast and engaging social themes and ideas, and they just feed so perfectly into one another that it’s almost seamless. We move from assembly lines to batter farms to food production to diets to weight to plastic surgery to sex dolls to ladyboys to actual dolls to geisha. It’s all one glorious flowing stream of thought that manages to make perfect sense, moving effortlessly from one point to the next.

Fighting for screentime…

Samsara looks and sounds beautiful. Fricke still has eye for the breathtaking and the beautiful. However, it also lack a lot of nuance and sophistication. That wouldn’t be a problem if Fricke was content to let his viewers get lost in the majestic imagery and epic soundtrack, but those shots of people staring at the camera looking sad or forelorn do tend to slow the movie down a bit. It’s still more than worth a look, especially if you’re interested in these sorts of narrative-less unions of sound and vision – but it probably isn’t the best place to start for those looking to branch out.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. The film wasn’t screened in 4K in Dublin, but in the lo-res 2K format, and worse still on a silver screen meant for 3D presentations.

    The whole thing was a lo-res con – an Irish joke played on an unsuspecting audience.

    Shame on the Jameson Dublin “International” Film Festival.

    • I did not know that Cineworld 17 was designed for 3D projection. that might explain why Avatar remains the best 3D experience of my cinematic life. To be entirely honest, though, Samsara looks beautiful no matter how it’s projected, but you’re right. Can’t wait to pick up the blu ray and try it out on the home cinema system.

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