Film Review: Samsara

Literally spanning the globe, this visually spectacular travelogue captures memorable images from every corner. The end result is not just a gorgeous (and sometimes strikingly ugly) picture show, but also a thought-provoking rumination on our complicat

From its “How did they get that close?” footage of the furiously erupting Hawaiian volcano Kilauea to its bird’s-eye view of a veritable sea of humanity converging at a temple in Mecca, Samsara repeatedly lets us know that it is going to be using every bit of its very big canvas, as it unspools its impressionistic portrait of our natural habitat—and how we inhabit it. Five years in the making, in a total of 25 countries on five continents, the film has assembled an array of images that, together, create such a varied spectacle that they threaten to overload the eyes. But equally impressive is the inspired editing job that has sequenced all this imagery into a free-associating narrative that elliptically charts how humanity has adapted to its environment—and how our natural world has, over time, changed in response to us.

“Samsara” is Hindu for “ever-turning circle of life”—but you don’t have to know that to pick up on this film’s evolutionary progression. Early on, the screen is filled with stirring sights that won’t seem extraordinarily exotic to anyone who has spent time watching National Geographic TV specials. Here, as on your home screen, you can find serpentine desert dunes with their windblown, skittering sands, and churning waterfalls cascading into rainforest gorges, and the time-lapse play of sun and moonlight over craggy cliffsides. But familiarity with such sights does not diminish their capacity to awe, especially when they’ve been recaptured with the 70mm camera of director-cinematographer Ron Fricke—whose penchant for time-lapse trickery achieves its most transcendent effect while his lens is tracing the flight of stars across an indigo night sky. To bear witness is to get a new appreciation for just how inexorably our planet is forever spinning.

Such scenes of nature’s splendor are lyrically interlaced with visions of humanity living in harmony with the natural world—in palaces nestled atop towering plateaus, in dwellings in the caves of sheer cliffsides, in temples on a mountain top in the foreground of the humbling Himalayas. Only gradually does Samsara show civilization’s oneness with nature giving way to encroachment, exploitation and choking overpopulation—as starkly dramatized by long, meditative shots of multiple ski-lifts humming up and down mountain slopes, masses of people swarming on and off subway trains, and, in the film’s only true visual cliché, the bright lights of arterial highway traffic revved up in fast-motion until they are so many laser-like streaks in the night. When this film’s spiritual predecessor Koyaanisqatsi (for which Fricke did the cinematography) showed us such imagery nearly 30 years ago, the effect was stunning and then increasingly unsettling. Now, it’s a not-uncommon sight in prime-time TV establishing shots, and it has long since lost its impact to dazzle. Not that the original message isn’t still loud and clear.

Samsara drives that message home with some genuinely disturbing images: The dismally rubbish-strewn waterfront of a ramshackle shanty-town. The dozens of Third World slum-dwellers foraging in a waste landfill. The densely packed chickens scurrying across the floor of a processing plant, before being sucked up by a piece of heavy machinery, like cornstalks into a thresher. In interviews, director Fricke and producer-co-editor Mark Magidson (Fricke’s collaborator on the 1992 Baraka, to which Samsara is a sort-of sequel) have insisted that no social comment was intended, that they were simply recording “how it is now…how things are done.” But it’s hard not to infer a certain subtext when a long look at hogs being gutted on a slaughterhouse assembly line is quickly followed by a lingering shot of a trio of obese people stuffing themselves with super-sized meals at a fast-food restaurant. A bit heavy-handed? Maybe—but that doesn’t make the images any less memorable.

Unlike Koyaanisqatsi (Hopi for “life out of balance”), which struck major chords with its contrasting visions of natural vistas and manmade desecrations, Samsara creates a more complex scenario, presenting nature and civilization in an ongoing give-and-take, continuously adapting to each other’s presence, for better or worse. Its cycle-of-life dynamic is at its most elemental in its images of acres of non-biodegradable garbage, forever despoiling the land beneath it, which stand in bleak contrast to other shots of the ruins of abandoned dwellings, in the process of being broken down by time, and slowly reclaimed by new plant growth and shifting sands.

No doubt the filmmakers would deny that such images of ongoing renewal were meant as a message of hope for the future. Presumably they really did just want to capture how the world works right now. Which is either the good news or the bad news, depending on how you look at it. But no matter what these first-rate cinematic essayists think about the people and places they’ve recorded for posterity, they have given us much with which to do our own thinking—long and deeply.