One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to perceive themes of circularity and renewal in Samsara, but it takes that level of patience to suffer its frequent low points with silence and good humour.
Supposedly intended as a spiritual sequel to Ron Fricke’s previous non-narrative travelogue Baraka (1992), and as the cinematic equivalent of “guided meditation,” Samsara feels first and foremost like a display of technical virtuosity. It was shot in 70 mm format, and the images have an amazing combination of massive scale and detailed texture.
Fricke and his crew lugged Panavision cameras across five continents, and certainly Samsara doesn’t lack for topographical variety: There are bustling metropolises and spartan villages, cloistered mountain monasteries and sprawling sand dunes. The film similarly assembles a varied cast of human characters, most of whom are shot documentary-style, although there are also moments when Fricke pushes beyond. One memorable interlude features an actor in a suit who ends up smearing his immaculate visage with thickly textured warpaint until he resembles a melting, demonic spectre (of capitalism, which, within the film’s globalized framework, literally haunts the world).
There is, of course, no obligation for a film like Samsara to be subtle in its commentary, and you could argue that rhetorical overstatement is needed in this case to measure up to the scope of the cinematography. But even by the standards of the quasi-essay-film subgenre that Fricke has long worked (he shot the seminal Koyaanisqatsi), Samsara feels blunt and over-determined. It piles on so many pointed tableaux of a technologically routinized (and implicitly soulless) society that it begins to resemble an inexorable machine itself – and this is not a compliment.
A shot of live chickens being fed through a whirling contraption sorting them for slaughter is emblematic of the film’s strengths (striking images) and weaknesses (visual metaphors so on the nose that they’re the cinematic equivalent of a deviated septum). It’s not just chickens that are being forcibly processed. Westerners, Fricke suggests, are similarly oblivious to their status as grist for the global mill.
For every modestly poetic juxtaposition there’s a clanger, like a sequence in which scantily clad women perform with a few scarily lifelike animatronic women scattered amongst them. It’s also distracting that some of the scenarios Fricke uses to get things up to feature length have been explored at length and in greater depth in better films. A scene showcasing the assembly-line tactics at a Chinese factory seems to have been lifted (stylistically and thematically) from Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes.
It could be argued that such criticisms are beside the point, that Samsara is so clearly a sensory experience that any attempt to definitely parse its contents is futile. This is the “sit back and enjoy the ride” approach, and viewed that way, Samsara makes for a fair theme-park attraction. But the thing about roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls is that they don’t really go anywhere – and can leave you feeling tired and worn out after the exhilaration of the first drop.