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 ...1