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Film Review: Samsara

Film Review: Samsara

July 01, 2012

Around the world in 70mm



If you asked me what director Ron Fricke's Samsara was about, I couldn’t tell you in a single line synopsis. Yet it is possibly one of the notable, stunning and memorable films I have seen in recent times. Suffice to say Samsara is described as a ‘non-verbal guided meditation’, which moves around the world, showcasing vast panoramas, civil structures and human practises. The word 'samsara' is sanskrit for ‘cyclic existence’ which manifests itself in the sequences of events which we see on screen.

We start with vast Buddhist temples, mingled with scenes of east Asian dance and culture, this moves quickly across other landscapes and civilisations - until we eventually see visions of the rich and poor, progress and destruction as well as the lifecycle of food and technology. Yet, despite all this, the tone of Samsara isn’t an overly patronising one. This isn’t a film that parades itself as ‘profound’. Instead, it chooses to beautifully present us with what’s already there, even though what’s already there, may not always be beautiful.

Fricke succeeds at building up semblances of narrative strands - simply through association. Arguably, his DOP experience with Francis Ford Coppola and Lucasfilm, has contributed to his signature, for instance, Fricke holds the frame for just precisely the right length. The mood he creates is therefore instantly dramatic. His use of time-lapse further adds to the film’s cyclical nature. Initially this is presented in nature, but is truly overwhelming in the one scene of people circulating around Mecca. In later stages of the film, where we see production lines and battery farms, we can’t help but think that this is Fricke’s comment on our vastly consumeristic age. But, just as nature has a habit of healing and restoring itself, so too does Samsara, but cutting seamlessly from one visual arrangement to another, before it gets too messy.

Of course, the film doesn’t succeed solely on its visual artistry, bringing it to life is the beautiful, ethereal and sometimes dramatic score. Arranged chiefly through a partnership between, Lisa Gerrard, Mark Magidson, Michael Stearns and Marcello De Francisci - the film pulls off a marriage between different musical styles paired with different chapters. One of the film’s selling points was Lisa Gerrard. The singer and composer is often described as the vocalist behind Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Though personally, I think this serves as a poor summary of her talents. As no stranger to her work, I was initially attracted to the film purely by her alone. So, it was a nice pay-off then to discover all audio-visual components working in harmony.

Ultimately it’s difficult to do justice for a film through words alone, particularly as this film has none. As a medium, it reminds us that we only need ideas to tell stories, once we’ve planted the seed, thoughts and emotions flourish of their own accord. I take for example, The Lighting of the Beacons in Lord of the Rings, or the opening sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Star Wars. Similarly, Fricke manages to weave meaning and emotion into the smallest of interactions, to the widest of vistas. Fortunately, for me, I saw this slap bang in the middle of a giant digital screen. I didn’t just get the experience of seeing a beautiful film, I got the experience of going around the world for a few hours, which for me, is the film’s greatest achievement. 

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