‘Samsara’ impresses on surface

By Sam Flancher

“Samsara” is the Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life.” The term describes a continuous cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth—states of being that flow together seamlessly. It is also a reference to the joy, suffering, struggle and triumph that occur daily all over the world.

It is with this worldly mindset that filmmaker Ron Fricke presents his latest documentary, “Samsara.” Having premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, the film is now scheduled for special screenings across the U.S. in September. Shot in stunning 70 mm film across 25 countries and five continents, “Samsara” is majestic in scope.

Completely wordless, the film is composed of beautifully stylized images of nature, stunning time-lapse photography and a hypnotically pulating score by Michael Sterns that aid in meshing sequences together. Shots of ancient ruins, modern day slums, mechanical assembly lines, mountains and human faces flow in and out of each frame.

Fricke creates a network of scenes portraying various cultures and lifestyles, giving each equal attention and respect. This meditative structure accounts for many of the film’s most poignant moments, offering up an egalitarian view of the world as a whole.

“Samsara” is a bit of a thematical departure for Fricke, whose like-minded 1992 film “Baraka” chronicled the awe-inspiring wonders of the Earth in an almost identical fashion. Where “Baraka” invited audiences to marvel at every inch of the globe, “Samsara” is decidedly more cynical. Dealing with destruction, consumption, mechanization, death and decay, the film’s at headier topics yield mixed results.

One particular sequence stands out as evidence of the film’s weightier tone. A long series of images show workers in an assembly line preparing and packing meat for commercial consumption.

The next shot is a time-lapse of patrons eating in a fast-food restaurant, followed by a close-up of an overweight man being prepared for plastic surgery. Here Fricke attempts to expose the pitfalls of a globally mechanized culture of consumption—material that would have felt slightly out of place in “Baraka.”

However, any attempt to chronicle the spiritual flow of life’s cyclical nature is ambitious, to say the least. Fricke ultimately sets audiences’ expectations too high with “Samsara.” The film routinely falls away from its respectful, meditative tone and adopts a brash, preachy approach to drive home its points on worldly connectedness. With such a wealth of visual splendor, it’s a shame more wasn’t done to explore its thematic material.

As a piece of purely visual spectacle, “Samsara” is able to dazzle and awe. Fricke’s compositional tact is admirable and oftentimes stunning. Thematically, though, the film fails to deliver anything equally astonishing. The film’s final shot is indicative of its thematic vacuity: Mountains of sand stretch far beyond what the film frame is able to capture—an apt metaphor for “Samsara’s” inability to meet its own lofty expectations.

At its best, “Samsara” is a series of meditative observations on the rhythms and movements of life. At its worst, it comes off as an exercise in empty style. Though the film is undeniably beautiful, it fails to explore the moments lying just beyond the frame.