Around the World in 90 Minutes
by Thomas Delapa
In Sanskrit, samsara roughly means the "ever-turning wheel of life and death." In director Ron Fricke's meditative non-verbal documentary, Samsara translates into a mute mélange of image and music that revolves from the humdrum to the stunning.
Five years in the making, Samsara is a return trip to the New-Age travelogue territory for Fricke that marked his 1992 Baraka -as well as 1983's trailblazing Koyaanisqatsi on which he was the cinematographer. In this incarnation (or perhaps reincarnation), Fricke and collaborator Mark Magidson trekked to 25 countries spanning the globe for a sensuous and spiritual spectacle, but one that will leave some audiences hunting for a thematic road map.
Fricke calls his work a "guided meditation," and the cascade of images captures a paradoxical world of dynamic contrasts: the sacred and profane, desert and mountain, city and country, rich and poor, primitive and modern. Central to both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, "samsara" isn't exactly an heavenly concept, but rather signifies the eternal cycle of life and death, including the infernal bugaboo of human suffering.
This odyssey starts at the birth of a new day at Buddhist monastery in India, where monks painstakingly create, grain-by-grain, a mandala sand painting. Visually, Fricke and Magidson's running motif is the human eye, whether on a resplendent Chinese dancer, a statue of King Tut or on a gallery of candid subjects staring at the camera, giving off expressions that run the gamut from disquieting defiance to inviting exoticism.
Fricke's camera also takes the long view, giving us remarkable vistas of deserts, mountains and cityscapes, often captured in revealing time-lapse. A busy downtown shimmers at night, punctuated by a moving necklace of headlights, while a river of commuters rushes through the Tokyo streets in fast-motion like so many human ants. You may feel like a stranger in a strange land as you eye these human caravans and wonder in bemusement where on earth we are headed as a species.
But confused audiences may well ask, "Where in the world is Ron Fricke?" since his globe-trotting is so fast and furious that it might make your head spin. Inner-directed spectators will take to the ambiguities and apparent incongruities of Fricke's eco-montage. Others will no doubt wish for better directions. Fricke doesn't readily connect the dots or his shots, so you'll have to DIY, folks.
Still, there is much to marvel at in this trippy New Age tour, which could be looked at as an upscale update of 1961's sensational Mondo Cane. Pessimists will think that the modern world really has gone to the dogs, especially after observing the unsavory scenes from a Chinese chicken factory, where workers in pink jump suits and masks systematically kill on a scale that would be the envy of Joseph Goebbels. Fricke never fails to remind us of evolution of mechanized man, embodied in the scary spectacle of tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers marching in robotic formation. In the frankly bizarre category, the dead winner is a Ghana coffin shop, which makes it possible for one newly departed to rest in peace inside a casket customized into a giant shotgun.
Fricke aims high in this movie (it was photographed in lush widescreen 70mm), but the results are scattershot. With no script per se, only a rough scenario, he and Magidson let the images speak for themselves. They sometimes say volumes in beauty, mystery, weirdness and wonder. Other times, they barely whisper. Samsara is 90 minutes of checkered pictorial pleasure, but it's a world away from cinematic nirvana.