Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: "Samsara"

Director: Ron Fricke
Runtime: 102 minutes

It would be quite easy to accuse Ron Fricke of repeating himself. In addition to serving as cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio's masterful Koyanisqaatsi, he also directed and photographed Baraka. The man has quite the track record when it comes to meditative silent documentaries about our world and man's place in it (it's the one category Netflix doesn't have). The title of his latest has uses in several languages and cultures (the word itself is Sanskrit). For Fricke's purposes, Samsara is the "continuous flow" of the cycle of birth, life, and death. Whereas Fricke's Baraka examined the clash between nature and industrialized life, here his focus is even more ambitious, and despite the pretty 70mm images on display, it is perhaps an even deeper and darker film, even as it awes us with beauty. 

Shot in over 20 countries over a five year period, somewhere out there, I'm certain, is a massive 24-hour long director's cut that will never see the light of day. What we're left with after all of Fricke's hard work is about 100 minutes, and surprisingly, it gets the job done quite nicely. Samsara never elevates the senses at the same level as Koyanisqaatsi's strongest sections (ex: the adrenaline rush-inducing sped up footage from inside a traveling car), but it perhaps does a stronger job of making its rather broad, spiritually-based point. The film opens with scenes of humanity where old traditions are still highly revered. There's little in the way of technology, and people work with their hands, even to create painstaking works of art that are only meant for temporary display. Some of the early stretches are a tad lacking in atmosphere and energy, but Samsara does kick into gear soon enough, albeit at a low enough level that it might take you a while to fully notice. 

Predictably, Fricke's photography is glorious to behold, and the mix of editing techniques (speeding up, slowing down, still shots, fluid camera movement, etc...) and general image assembly are remarkable. One would think that time lapse shots of light and shadow would grow tiresome after a while (there's more here than in the average episode of Breaking Bad), yet somehow Fricke's images retain a freshness. It also helps that, even when photographing the stunning locals, that Fricke doesn't indulge in any obvious methods of artificiality. The images are beautiful, and they also feel real. Fricke also astounds with his use of 70mm film, employing it to spectacular effect in scenes both big (and I mean BIG) and small. 

Of course, there are images that, despite their impressive composition and geometry, aren't so beautiful. Shots of cows on a circular conveyor belt or of chickens being sucked into a caging device are certainly less than pleasant (enjoy the close-up look at an assembly line of workers gutting pig carcasses). Surprisingly, it's not vegan propaganda, but rather a very smart and unsettling way to illustrate one of Samsara's points. Despite the massive amounts of organized production in the world, there is still an imbalance as to where the fruits of said production go. Rather than feel like an awkward bit of commentary, this angle only enhances the film's standing as an important work. Fricke is also wise in that he avoids saving the less pleasant moments for last as a cheap bit of sensationalism. These problems exist, say Fricke's images, but there is also goodness, beauty, vivacity, energy, etc... And the cycle goes on.

Grade: B/B+ 

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