It’s difficult to know what to say about Ron Fricke’s Samsara. For starters, the easiest road into critical assessment is comparison, and there is simply nothing else I know to compare it to, other than Fricke’s other work. On that level, this is another triumph for Fricke, reaching new mastery in the experimental documentary style he started as the cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, and last on display twenty years ago in Baraka, his previous collaboration with producer Mark Magidson. Shot entirely in Panavision’s 70 millimeter format, the film is stunning and gorgeous, and should be seen on the largest, highest-resolution format available.
On a deeper level, the difficulty is inherent to the experimental style itself. Lacking any traditional sense of plot or character, Samsara eschews words entirely to achieve its ends. So how can I, in words, approach a piece of art so thoroughly visual that it has left the realm of words behind? I may as well try to narrate a sunset to a friend who has been blind from birth. Cinema is an inherently visual medium, and Fricke’s work pushes this to its extreme.
Which is not to say that the film doesn’t seem to have a point. Indeed, it may have a very important point — one which is revealed in the experience of the watching. And as I cannot experience it for you, I cannot parse the experience for you. It is a mandala, drawn in delicate, celluloid sand. What it represents is between you and the image.
I can speak to some of the images, though. Shot around the world — the locations are listed in the credits, but it would take some doing to match up each image with its source — Samsara seeks to skim the breadth of human activity. Indeed, the title refers to the “continuous flow” of birth, life, death, and reincarnation; the wheel of life. But it also seeks to ground its images in the natural world, with extended time-lapse sections watching a single scene as the sun and moon wheel overhead.
Fricke ties these together; an old house in what appears to be a mid-twentieth century American style has been abandoned and overrun, with sand or dirt rising halfway up the walls in places. A camera left overnight watches the moonlight stream through what remains of the roof and make its way down the wall and across the floor. This is juxtaposed with long-since abandoned Arizona Pueblos, and with formerly-flooded houses in the Lower Ninth Ward.
A motif Fricke returns to over and over again: a triptych of faces. One time they’re from a native tribe, possibly from New Guinea. Another time they’re cellmates in a Filipino prison. Another time they’re a family of rifle-toting Americans. In rhyming this shot over and over again, Fricke forces us to consider how these are all the same.
Of course, I can only scratch the surface. Fricke’s visuals range from the incisive to the shocking to the transcendent. He gives no instructions but to request that we look with his camera. Find a theater showing Samsara near you; sit right up close, letting it fill your field of view; let it wash over you. Don’t force it, or try to think through it. Just look, and see.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: at last I have to come right down and say that this test simply doesn’t apply to a film like Samsara.