Samsara. The name begets an aura of distant mystery. What kind of film is this? A journey into the unknown or a treasure hunt spanning continents? An elixir guaranteeing meaning to all shades of existence, sought for high and low? The latest project from Ron Fricke (1985's Chronos and 1992's Baraka) answers a subtle yes to all these suggestions while reaching even further. His camera traverses the globe with the fervency of a Cortes, the ambition of a Magellan. Still, his greater purpose is to create not a travelogue but a dialogue. The far-away wonders and nearby concerns presented are meant to encourage us to allow the world to illumine itself and our souls.
If narrative structure is necessary for your cinematic enjoyment, Samsara will probably dissatisfy. One viewer may perceive it to be a kaleidoscopic masterpiece while another may see it as an unwelcome flashback to college art history slide shows. No dialogue is exchanged between characters, no soliloquies pass the lips of any personage. It's a silent documentary, accompanied by ambient music and the even louder soundtrack of the viewer's own thoughts. A variety of landscapes, faces, and circumstances pass in and out of focus bereft of any explanation.
The breadth of life depicted here refuses to be framed or unified. Diversity is the highest virtue. Toward the beginning, a group of Buddhist monks gathers around a patch of ground to create a work of art, communally crafting a mandala—a spiritual tapestry made of colored sands, as delicate as it is intricate. Close to when the curtains fall, the same monks are seen destroying what they have created—not with any sense of malice but perhaps a hint of fatalism. The end was as inevitable as the beginning. What happens in between creation and destruction is life, life, shining life. Fricke sets out to display it all. Fantasies and nightmares, the serene and saddening. Questions are posed by portrayal alone. What is man's hand in both the assembling and dispersal of the tapestry? The personalities, the architecture, and the threatening wild all seem to support different conclusions. And perhaps that's what Fricke wants the viewer to take away in the first place.
Samsara is a phenomenally ambitious film. Shot over the course of five years, spanning continents, it sets out to encompass the whole world and life from infancy to cessation. The cinematography captures all the myriad elements of earthly life with vibrancy and colorful abandon. Think The Tree of Life meets National Geographic in motion. Each scene is composed according to its own needs. Still, this fly-by-night set of moving pictures is able to maintain its strange unpredictability without becoming a mere series of vignettes. Inexplicably, Fricke was able to make different countries, different peoples, and different shooting styles cohere without losing each scene's originality.
While often evoking wonder, any study of life's light can only be seen by darkness's occasional display. Disturbance comes unexpectedly and without warning. Interposed with the mundane or joyful are factually based and surrealistic examples of fear and evil. Animals are mistreated, the aftermath of catastrophe is analyzed, and a nightmare plays out in an office cubicle. There is the desire to turn away, the cringe you wish did not exist. Especially when couched in so many other real life images, Fricke refuses to spoon feed. If we are to have his vision of human existence, cradle to the grave, we are to have a vision that includes the righteous and the wicked.