Samsara is Ron Fricke’s first film since 1992’s Baraka and like its predecessor, Samsara is a non-narrative film. However, not only does Samsara defy the conventions of popular narrative cinema, but also our expectations of the documentary format. The film features no narrator, no dialogue or any descriptive text whatsoever. Instead, the film asks that you form your own narrative by interpreting the visually stunning cinematography. Sounds rather pretentious, but it is without doubt the cinematic event – if not film – of the year.
The word, Samsara, literally means ‘continuous flow’ and after watching the film it isn’t difficult to recognise the significance, but not only to this film, but to Fricke and the film’s producer, Mark Magidson’s body of work. Samsara is the next step in the evolution of their unique documentary style, and this is echoed explicitly within the film with several locations seemingly being reused – going as far back as 1985’s, Chronos. However, the crux of Fricke and Magidson’s work, not only revolves around their mesmerising imagery, but the juxtaposition of man and nature, and the ancient world with the modern. This is an ethereal cinematic journey.
Samsara depicts both the ordinary and extraordinary wonders of the world we live in, and illustrates how humanity’s cycle mirrors the natural world. The film delivers a pseudo-narrative via allusion and metaphors. It would be simple to juxtapose one of the bustling metropolitan cityscapes with a bee hive, but fortunately, this isn’t A-level symbolism, so the comparisons are far subtler. However, while the metaphors at work here shouldn’t prove too troubling for the arthouse crowd, a more mainstream audience might neglect Fricke’s craftsmanship.
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Testament to Fricke’s meticulous filmmaking, Samsara was photographed entirely on 70mm film, using a motion control time-lapse camera, which was specifically designed for this film. By using this particular setup, Fricke shows how the shift of perspective can reveal the extraordinary out of the ordinary. In one scene, the camera shoots from inside a shanty cabin in the desert. By night it is a thing of dazzling beauty, with a chiaroscuro lighting effect created by the damaged roof, where the moonlight shines through, but then daylight arrives and this magical illusion is shattered. Ergo the extraordinary from the ordinary.
The aforementioned sequence (in particular), is testament to the scanning process that was used to transfer Samsara from 70mm film to digital. The images are crisp and the colours have a vibrancy beyond anything you will have ever seen in the cinema. Period. This is only Fricke’s second feature-length film, so let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another 15 years for his third.
Samsara really is breathtakingly great cinema, it beautifully illustrates – and with dazzling clarity – the moving image’s capacity to mesmerise. It truly is a cinematic event like no other in 2012; imagine if Kubrick (in a ripe old age) had grown tired of narrative cinema and had embraced spiritualism – I know, that’s a long shot, but go with it – well, that’s the sort of majestic filmmaking, which is on display in Samsara.
Samsara is playing at Dartington’s Barn Cinema from Friday, September 14 – Thursday, September 20 and tickets can be purchased by calling the box office on 01803 847070.