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.
Faces take up most of the screen time; the human visage is the most useful metaphor for the human soul. By staring into the eyes of so many different people, the spectator's self is brought under greater scrutiny. Interior monologuing reaches an all-time high as uncomfortable seconds while by, faces staring directly into the camera and, by extension, directly into the audience's hearts. In its best moments, the film unnerves or enlightens by creating the sensation that it is watching you. A look into the eyes of African or Tibetan citizens makes life both more intense and sublime in North America
The Christian's sense of mission might be deepened by films such as these. On one hand, it seems to be a practical ode to postmodernity. "Can you not see how different we all are?" "How silly to impose an exclusive system of belief on such an endless world?" But through each scene, a little more of the beauty and brokenness found in every human artwork and personality is revealed. The tapestry is created and then destroyed: this is an absolute. Even more so is the desire for resurrection, for a more beautiful and indestructible tapestry that we have yet to even understand.Discussion starters
- What is the value of travel in the Christian life? Can seeing other ways of life help us better understand our own?
- The film's more disturbing sequences are deeply unsettling. Are nightmares as essential as lighthearted dreams to the human condition?
- Do you think the director's worldview is detectable here? If so, do you think it can be considered compatible with Christianity?
Samsara is rated PG-13 for some disturbing and sexual images. There is one truly frightening sequence involving a man in an office cubicle as well as some scary images involving deformities or human cruelty to animals. Another scene takes place in what appears to be an erotic dance club somewhere in Asia. The breasts of African tribal women are also seen in a different sequence.
Photos © Oscilloscope Pictures
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