Great art is often open to interpretation and the new documentary film Samsara certainly fits that bill. This film is a magnificent journey that shows where the human race has been, where we are in the grand scheme of time and where our ultimate destination most assuredly lies. It is beautiful and depressing all at the same time and I’m certain that each viewer will walk away from this movie with their own translation of its unspoken message.
The word Samsara is Sanskrit for “the ever turning wheel of life” (or the “circle of life” for Disney fans) and the film does an extraordinary job of capturing both the best and the worst of humanity and human achievement, sometimes at the same moment and with the exact same imagery, as we have traversed through time from ancient civilization to our current existence in the modern world.
The film Samsara is presented as more of a primal sensation than a standard narrative and as such there is no dialogue in this movie, only awe-inspiring visual imagery and music – but the message that is communicated is a gut-wrenching and unavoidable prophecy regarding the final fate of mankind.
The cameras of Samsara cover five continents and twenty-five countries, including China, Myanmar, India, Japan, Ethiopia and the United States. And while the beautiful cinematography of the ancient city of Bagan might inspire a trip to Burma, this film is so much more than a travelogue. The alluring images of decaying cities, both ancient and modern, convey the biblical adage of “ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”
Interspersed throughout Samsara’s moving mosaic of crumbed, rising and collapsing civilizations are moments of pause, when people from the far regions of the globe are staring into the camera and through your soul as if to say, “We’re doomed – and it’s all your fault.” These moments are haunting, disturbing and will stay with you forever.
Samsara is rife with unnerving images, some of them subtle and some in-your-face. The sequences involving human-like robots and sex-dolls are especially unsettling and showcase our vanity and desire to play God. Other scenes involving the human food-chain are sure to turn many meat lovers into vegans. This film has the power to change lives on many different levels.
As there are no words in this film, it’s ironic that there are not enough words to properly describe the unsettling effect that Samsara is likely to have on its viewers. Not everyone will walk away from this movie with the same perception of it that I have – and that is genius of this film – but for me, this is the most magnificently disturbing movie I have ever seen and drives home the point that the human race is lame and largely insignificant.
Beyond the visionary artistic aspects of this film, on a technical level it is also amazing. Samsara was filmed entirely in 70mm by director and cinematographer Ron Fricke, who is known for other nonverbal cinematic feats like Baraka (1992) and Koyaanisqatsi (1982), which was one of the first films of this kind. Fricke has an incredible command of slow motion and time-lapse film techniques that can make otherwise mundane subjects more beautiful or appalling.
The mesmerizing music of Samsara is perfectly matched to its equally stunning visuals. The original music was composed by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci and it is much more enjoyable and effective than some of the repetitive (and eventually annoying) refrains that Philip Glass infused into Koyaanisqatsi.
There are plenty of films about the end of the world, usually served up as mindless entertainment, but Samsara is the real deal. It majestically captures the truth that despite man’s best efforts, we’re our own worst enemy and like all of the great civilizations before us, we’ll eventually succumb to the sands of time. This is not the happiest of films, but it’s certainly humbling, thought-provoking and a must-see work of art in motion. Grade: 9/10