Random Netflix review: Samsara
James R | On 21, Jul 2013
Director: Ron Fricke
Watch online: Netflix
Every weekend, we hit our Netflix Random Button and review whatever comes up.
“The Balinese women have been dancing in unison now for several hours. Their hypnotic movements are a form of artistic expression among their people. And now we turn to our close-up camera…”
You can’t help but hear that voice in your head during Samsara. Twenty years after Baraka, Ron Fricke’s back with another non-spoken, non-linear documentary. The unique blend of imagery and music plays out like a cross between a Tate Modern art installation and a BBC wildlife documentary – an acquired taste that automatically brings your inner David Attenborough to life.
But it’s not just dancing tribes and trees: Fricke travels all over the world (25 countries to be exact), cutting from one thing to the next in a flurry of disconnected pictures. From Balinese rituals to thundering clouds and volcanoes.
“Engulved in fifty tons of liquid hot magma, the sudden eruption caught the women all by surprise. The Balinese dancers… are no more.”
Part of Samsara’s success will depend on whether you can switch your inner Attenborough off. But with the range of imagery on show, it’s easy for him to get distracted. Time-lapse shots of stars above the desert, shadows along the edges of sand dunes that make them look hollow, gold-laden temples on top of mountains.
Fricke and Mark Magidson’s photography is so arresting that they can make anything look stunning – even the ugly stuff. Unlike Baraka’s woodland roaming, Samsara takes us into the developed world: cars, streaking through Tokyo in beams of light, resemble something out of TRON: Legacy; supermarkets, destroyed by floods, sit empty, half-submerged in dust.
With this shift in focus, Samsara sets itself up to become something Bakara never was: political. Cutting between gentle shots of natural, undeveloped landscapes to urban environments, Fricke seems to cast a negative shadow over the modern human race. Factories process raw meat in a balletic orgy of hands and instruments, dissecting, chopping, dumping, dissecting, chopping dumping. Like an 18-rated Busby Berkeley musical, corpses wheel about with geometric precision. it’s hard not to feel repulsed.
A few minutes later, Fricke sits a woman in a burka next to a billboard of semi-naked models. Later, we watch a gun assembled by a child, sitting on top of a piece of paper that reads: “Bringing the best of the Philippines to the rest of the world.” Then, we gaze at a man’s face, which moves slowly, accompanied by mechanical noises from off-screen.
These juxtapositions suggest some kind of commentary – a loose structure that gives your dazzled brain something to hold on to.
But the filmmaking pair are aiming for something deeper than that. They begin the film with a large statue that stares at the audience. Throughout, they get people to mimic the pose, looking directly into the camera. Some appear angry or hostile. Some are sad. One geisha, who stares at us for at least 30 seconds, doesn’t blink. Not even when a tear rolls down her cheek.
It’s an undeniably moving moment – and that’s why Samsara is so sensational. You can’t help but interact with what you see. Bothered about there being no plot? Invent your own. There’s no genre, but it somehow covers everything: comedy (babies squirming awkwardly during a christening), action (people rushing through train stations), romance (a couple, kissing in slow motion as the world flocks past), and in one disturbing scene, horror, as a man applies clay to his face then tears it off with manic glee, over and over and over.
That cycle is what the title apparently refers to: birth and rebirth. A moving cycle of life. But rather than Simba and Elton John, we get a group of monks sculpting a painting out of sand in a monastery. They painstakingly assemble the tiny pieces on a table, piecing together a world of blues, greens, oranges and yellows. Then, satisfied, they wipe it away into a smudge of greenish grey. And they start again.
Flowing against a pounding soundtrack that ranges from drums to Keith Jarrett organs, Samsara is nothing more than a stream of thoughts and images. It’s a 100-minute screensaver – but it just so happens to be the most breathtaking screensaver you’ll ever see in your life. There’s no dialogue to distract you or characters to worry about: shot on 70mm with care and attention, this is cinema in its purest form. And that, in itself, is an exhilarating experience. Even David Attenborough wouldn’t talk over it.