Samsara Movie review

Samsara is one of those movies that can get away with having no plot. No plot in the traditional sense of story, that is. But in spite of this, director and photographer Ron Fricke still manages a carefully layered narrative of juxtaposition, cause and effect and absolute wonderment. He presents the planet, both its best and worst, in stunning clarity.

I’ll say it straight out; Samsara is the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen. More so than Fricke’s most notable film, Baraka (1992), a feat that I thought he’d never top. More so than my favourite film, Thin Red Line (1996). More so than 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), shot on the same Panavision Super 70mm film (think big, detailed and expensive). More so than the re-remastered Blade Runner (1982).

Fricke is to cinema as Gursky is to still photography. Large, panoramic vistas of Angkor Wat glow with super saturated colour and texture. Detail abounds in timelapsed nighttime vistas of nameless metropolises. In one of my favourite scenes, timelapsed moonlight filters through the exposed rafters of an abandoned house, playing across the wall and over the undulations of the silt that has reclaimed the space.

Contrasted against the vistas are intimate and sympathetic living portraits of people from across the globe. Painted faces in Africa. The painstakingly manicured face of a tearing Maiko (apprentice Geisha). A hulkish, tattooed skinhead gently cradling his baby daughter.

In Samsara’s opening scene, doll-like Javanese girls dance in stunning traditional costume and makeup. This scene gives way to the rolling clouds of an active volcano. Here Fricke’s attention to detail on the audio is apparent, as the volcano’s thunderous profundo invades the aural room inside your head.

But it’s the scenes that toyed with the human condition that left the biggest impression on me. Where Baraka conveyed the beauty of the world and elements of humanity (as best I can remember), in Samsara, Fricke presents his confronting perspective on how we are simultaneously brilliant and terribly evil.

Manufacturing process workers in a nameless factory, the kind replicated across Asia, all in yellow costume and marching into factories with martial order. Workers stationed at conveyor belts, performing mind-numbing repetitive tasks such as screwing screws. In steps we see a clothes iron coming together, the kind you buy from Big W for $19.95 and discard when you move house.

Perhaps the most confronting scenes are those filmed in meat processing plants. Workers ‘vacuum’ up live chickens with a rotary scoop and funnel the birds into trays as if they were toys. Fricke is careful not to gross the audience out too much by skipping over the actual killing of the birds as he moves to a giant processing room filled with hundreds of workers gutting and dissecting carcasses. The scenes speak volumes about the unsustainability of feeding 7 billion people.

Tying everything together is the soundtrack. Composed by Melbourne’s own Lisa Gerrard (think Gladiator (2000) and fusion music band Dead Can Dance) and the film’s producer Mark Magidson, the soundtrack spans as many cultures as do the visuals. Gerrard’s haunting vocals carry the equally haunting visuals of salt flats under a timelapsed night sky, whilst heavy percussion enhances the frantic process manufacturing scenes.

Samsara represents the height of filmmaking as an art form. But like any high art, it is certainly not for everyone. You cannot go into the cinema expecting to have everything sewn up for you as if it’s a Hollywood drama. Rather, you as the viewer have to let go of your preconceptions of cinema. Just place some trust in Fricke and allow him to take your mind on a journey for 2 hours. For film nerds like me, it’s the perfect movie—it focuses on beautiful images and ultra high quality and the story (or lack thereof) is inconsequential.

Looking back on what I’ve written, one thing is quite obvious; I want to fuck Fricke!

Samsara is currently on national release at the usual art-house cinemas (Palace & Dendy etc). If this movie is up your alley, I do strongly encourage you to see it on the big screen.

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