Ron Fricke's 70mm follow-up to Baraka


Rating SamsaraSamsaraSamsaraSamsara

Directed by Ron Fricke.

A wordless blend of incredible imagery and emotive music, Samsara was a long time in the making. Ron Fricke’s spiritual successor to his widely-acclaimed Baraka is his first film since that one, twenty years ago, and was filmed over a span of five years at locations in 25 countries. The wait was worth it: Samsara is one of the most beautifully-photographed films ever made. 

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Like Baraka (and Chronos, the director’s earlier 45-minute IMAX film), and Godfrey Reggio’s “Qatsi” trilogy (Fricke photographed the first film in that series, 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi), Samsara is a non-narrative documentary that showcases a slice of contemporary life on Earth, from diverse cultures to natural and man-made landscapes across the globe.

Utilizing slow-motion and time-lapse photography, and shot on 70mm film (though projected locally in HD digital format), Samsara is simply stunning to look at, and the most technologically advanced out of any of these films. It needs to be, too: thematically, it covers a lot of the similar ground (especially compared to Baraka), and might otherwise seem repetitive, but every sequence is just so visually fascinating to look at that it makes up for it.

The music – by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello de Francisci – also helps carry the film, which despite the lack of a traditional narrative, never feels long at 100 minutes (indeed, I could have easily watched another 100 minutes). Still, I prefer Philip Glass’ hypnotic work on the Qatsi films.

A highlight – and a bizarre and unexpected inclusion, to say the least – is footage of French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan and his piece ‘Transformation’. It’s a creepy segment that is likely to jar some viewers, but ties in nicely with a thematic aspect of the film involving man’s pursuit of perfection, featuring cosmetic surgery, Thai ladyboys, and some incredibly lifelike robotics.

One of the major criticisms of Baraka (and now Samsara) is the aspect of ‘editorializing’: some critics feel that the spiritual, eco-friendly message of the film is presented too forcefully. That’s partly due to scenes of hardships in third-world countries (at a sulfur mine in Java, or a garbage dump in the Philippines) contrasted with Western consumerism, and also due to sequences showcasing food processing facilities.

Baraka featured a notorious scene inside a chicken processing plant, and Samsara features a similar scene involving chickens, cows, and pigs going from birth to fast food. Some viewers will find these scenes disturbing (though by now, after Fast Food Nation, Food Inc., and other food production books and films, one would hope people have an idea of the reality of the situation), but the segment in Samsara is somewhat less unsettling than the one in its predecessor. 

In any event, I feel that the criticism is unwarranted. There’s a spiritual vibe throughout these films, sure, but Fricke’s camera captures beauty in everything that it films: images of chickens being sucked into a combine-like harvesting machine, or pigs being slaughtered, are no less ‘pretty’ than those of traditionally beautiful landscapes. Fricke simply presents a portrait of the world we’re living in, and leaves the good or bad judgment calls up to the viewer.

Interestingly enough, US food processors refused the filmmakers access to their facilities, while the Chinese facility shown in the film was proud to showcase the “efficiency and cleanliness of their factory”, according to an interview in The Atlantic. It’s all about perception.

Samsara features some of the most beautiful imagery ever to grace the screen, and demands to be seen in a cinema. And like its predecessors before it, it’s an invaluable document of life on Earth. 

Also opening:

  • Kozí příběh se sýrem (showtimes), a sequel to the popular Czech animated film Kozí příběh. Screening in Czech.
  • Dva nula (showtimes), a documentary from Pavel Abrahám. Screening in Czech.

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