Directed by Ron Fricke
Rated M, 99 minutes
Showing at Cremorne Orpheum, Palace Verona and Norton Street, Dendy Newtown, Hoyts Cinema Paris
SAMSARA is a ''guided meditation'' on the themes of birth, life, death and rebirth from the men who did Baraka in 1992: Ron Fricke and co-producer Mark Magidson.
It continues their experimentation with ''non-verbal'' filmmaking. They say it's neither documentary, travelogue nor story, and certainly not a political treatise. That's a long list of things it ain't.
They want us to surrender to the power of the images, rather than interpret them. Fricke says it's a kind of zen movie, a structured collection of images of the world we now live in. The music, in a variety of styles, is by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci.
There are so many contradictions in those statements that I know not where to begin. Is it even possible to meditate during a film, especially one as beautiful as this? How do you empty your mind while it's being filled with rich and arresting imagery? And how exactly is the meditation ''guided''? Is that called editing? Where are they guiding us and why? If the film has no political standpoint, why do we see some disquieting images of food production in chicken and pig factories in China, as well as sublime shots of monks blowing horns in Ladakh? I'm confused. Are they saying something or nothing?
For a non-verbal film, there are quite a lot of words. On the other hand, you can just let yourself go with the flow, as the filmmakers prefer.
Fricke and Magidson went to 24 countries in three years. They shot on 70mm film, almost unheard of these days. The film was finished digitally, but the use of modified Panavision cameras delivers an image that reminds us of what we are losing. Digital does not look the same as film, and nothing looks as good as 70mm film (even Imax).
Samsara is a Sanskrit word, a concept in Eastern religions that describes the continuous flow of life, from birth to death and reincarnation. The film is organised around these ideas, so we see a newborn baby baptised, a muscular man covered in tattoos cradling a newborn infant, the burial of a man in Ghana in a coffin shaped like a handgun. We see slums and favelas, ragpickers on waste dumps and the terrifying precision of a Chinese military parade. None of these images is unpolitical: I guess this is the guided part, along with the images of chickens being swept into a killing line by a dark, satanic machine, or the carcasses of pigs in a Chinese factory.
At the same time, these brutalities of modern life are a small part of the film. We see much more that is sublime, both in a natural and man-made sense. Fricke is an expert both in large-format cinematography and time-lapse, so there are stunning sequences of star trails in the desert and sunsets on Namibian sand dunes, or shadows rising on El Capitan in Yosemite.
There's a theme of religious observance: an extraordinary aerial shot above the great mosque in Mecca during the Haj; frolicking Buddhist boys twirling a prayer wheel in a monastery in the Himalayas.
The problem with this appeal to the unconscious is that it becomes a bit like a 70mm version of National Geographic: brilliant photography, terrified to offend. Much of it is absolutely gorgeous, and that is its own reward, but being more direct about the point of view would not have compromised our freedom to voyage and wonder.