Forget Prometheus. Samsara proves the greatest spectacle is to be found on Planet Earth.
Ron Fricke’s visionary follow-up to his remarkable Baraka (1992) is a confounding and elusive but utterly hypnotic experience, and a powerful reminder that while mankind is responsible for much of the beauty in the world, it’s also responsible for much of its destruction and industrialisation.
Samsara is the epitome of cinema as blank canvas: what the viewer brings to it is what they take from it. There’s no dialogue and no subtitles: just a succession of images that span the globe. The film’s title is Sanskrit for the cycle of life but it’s not a movie that belabours an obvious message. Instead, it washes over you like a tide; afterwards, you’re forced to scrutinise what it all means.
As a sheer technical exercise, the film has few equals in 2012. The marketing proudly boasts that it was shot over five years in twenty-five countries across all five continents but even that does little to prepare you for the staggering scale on offer. The ambitious desire to shoot on 70MM however isn’t adequately matched by the number of UK cinemas able to project in that format; however, so incredible are the images captured that a decent 35MM print will more than do the film justice.
In what appears to be an Asian monastery, a group of people construct a jaw-droppingly beautiful artwork out of coloured sand, only for it to be destroyed; an encroaching shaft of sunlight across a mysterious stone face gives the impression of an eye-opening; and a dizzying aerial shot over an undisclosed mountain range is juxtaposed with an endless desert stretching away to the horizon.
Although the images would appear to be disconnected, a connection is unveiled early on, revealing not so much a narrative as a thematic basis running through the movie: spectacular footage of a volcanic eruption is followed by shots of petrified bodies. One assumes they’re from Pompei but the film never spells it outright, nor does it explain the juxtaposition itself. Is it a statement on humanity’s fractious relationship with nature?
As the film progresses, it becomes progressively more unsettling, moving into the manufactured world and capturing such distressing sights as the intensive farming of chickens, who are scooped up in what looks like a combine harvester and forcibly chucked into baskets for slaughter. The move from the earlier natural world into a more recognizably human one, in which the latter exploits the former, appears to be a very deliberate step and a damning indictment of the culture in which we live.
The film eventually flows back towards a sense of calm, with a reinstatement of that endless desert which appears so peaceful yet ominous in its endless expanse. Is the decision to repeat this image a microcosmic statement on the fate of humanity? Are we fated to return to matter? Such questions nag at the brain as incessantly as Michael Stearn’s score hums and thrums away beneath the film itself.
In an era of cookie-cutter cinema, Samsara is a breath of fresh air carrying us over trees, mountains, cities and beyond. It’s a movie with its own voice, and the firm desire to maintain this voice right until the end. Is the film a retread of Baraka? Maybe. Is a frustrating, aloof experience? Quite possibly. Do the answers exist entirely in the viewer’s head? Absolutely, and that is a very exciting thing.