Film review: Samsara

by Helene Wong / 21 February, 2013
The photography is stupendous, in slow-motion and time-lapse, but with no dialogue or plot. Just pictures, with sound either natural or composed, writes Helene Wong.
Samsara film review

Devotees of Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka will know what to expect from Samsara: a sociogeographical voyage that’s an epic visual “trip”– shot in 70mm and showing humanity in all its guises and environments. The photography is stupendous, in slow-motion and time-lapse, but with no dialogue or plot. Just pictures, with sound either natural or composed.

The pictures are of people and places in a seemingly disjointed mix of the sacred and mundane (or profane); breathtaking beauty and shocking ugliness juxtaposed; the interconnectedness of man and nature; man’s distortion of nature in his attempts to mimic it. One disturbing line of imagery shows how we acquire, process and waste food; another the way we organise work; yet another, transportation. Nothing is dwelt on, though, and the tone and intent is less political than meditative. We observe, we note connections, we move on.

Ron Fricke, who cut his cinematographic teeth on Koyaanisqatsi, shot this over five years in 25 countries, spanning First and Third worlds. Even his treatment of human subjects encourages meditation: extended studies of hands and faces, eyes staring impassively down the barrel to draw the viewer in to experience the essence of the people and their particularities.

But there is so much visual information and so many ideas in play that it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. The clues are in the title – Sanskrit for “passing through” – and in the mandala we see being made at the beginning and destroyed at the end. It’s about impermanence: growth, change, decay and destruction in the cycle of life and death. It’s cinema of contemplation, and you may be hard-pressed to remember much afterwards. The trick is not to force out meaning but simply let it wash through you.

OPENS FEBRUARY 28

Rating: 3/5

SAMSARA, directed by Ron Fricke

Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing
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