Ron Fricke’s 70mm extravaganza is a breathtaking non-narrative cinematic symphony.
Shot in breathtaking 70mm in 26 different countries, and supercharged with some astonishingly innovative sound design, this follow up to director and cinematographer Ron Fricke’s 1992 film Baraka is an immersive, non-narrative cinematic symphony which explores the links between nature, humanity and the cycle of life.
Distinguished by gorgeous visuals and rich colours, Samsara sweeps by in a mesmeric image stream of man and machine, destruction and creation, life and death. Among a catalogue of contenders, its most staggering moment is a sequence shot at Hajj in which millions of Islamic pilgrims whir like nail filings in accelerated time-lapse around the Kaaba obelisk; here rendered as a giant, glowing, spiritual magnet.
Under retrospective scrutiny, some of the film’s connections feel a little trite: the mass killing of chickens segues into a passage featuring corpulent American diners, for example. But such are the persuasive rhythms of the editing, it’s hard not to just go with the pulsing flow. There’s an intelligence at work, too.
One extraordinary sequence subverts observational detachment to depict a teacher (played by an actor) undergoing a dramatically heightened nervous breakdown. To the sounds of a clattering, percussive soundtrack, he constructs a papier-mâché head, and proceeds to destroy it while wearing it.
It’s a horrifyingly funny moment, unexpectedly redolent of the work by New York performance art troupe, The Wooster Group, and it also riffs playfully on the corrosive stress of modern living. By all rights, this segment should be jarring. Instead, it works as a smartly reflexive comment on the film’s own observational artificiality. It’s just as constructed as many of the wide-eyed anthropological shots involving ‘real’ people.
The lack of narrative suggests that Samsara won’t be for everyone, but it’s hard to think of a recent work that’s attained profundity through such simplicity. Its melding of technical wizardry with soulful observation furnishes a new way of viewing the world and achieves the feat of making our planet seem simultaneously overwhelming and intimate.
It’s been a long wait since Baraka.
A treat for eyes, ears, brain and soul.
The sensation wears off slightly, but it’s still staggering, moving, even humbling.