By Matt Zoller Seitz | Press Play August 28, 2012 at 10:18AM
Ronald Fricke's Samsara is a trance movie. Its title is a Buddhist term that roughly translates as, "The cycle of death and rebirth to which life in the material world is bound." And in a roundabout way, the movie does tell that story. Fricke's 1992 feature Baraka tells that story, too—the biggest, simplest story; the only story, really. But for my money, Samsara is better than Baraka—and better than Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisquatsi, which Fricke shot—because its images are more purely contemplative and much more free. They aren't being bent and juxtaposed to advance certain arguments, however loosely.
There are points where the film steers you in a certain direction—for instance, rhyming shots of factory-farm butchery and shots of newly-minted rifle bullets pouring into a bin at an ammo factory (industrialized violence), or the placement of uncannily realistic robots, rubber sex dolls and meat-market strippers in the same montage (dehumanization). But for the most part it's a very loose, confident movie, one that seems to have been made by a much wiser, more relaxed director than the one who created Baraka. Fricke used a birth-to-death structure in Baraka, too, but it was more mathematically precise there. The earlier film was linear, for the most part. It confined its tangents to subchapters that might as well have been captioned: "The same industrial power that brought us modern cities also brought us genocide." "Different cultures observe different rituals, but deep down all rituals are the same." "The rich don't give a damn about the poor." In Samsara, Fricke and his editors work with similar images (though more vivid and crisp because they're shot on 70mm film). But this movie deploys them differently—in a looser, more confident, more open-ended way. You have to get into the spirit of the movie, engage with it, relax, and float downstream.
I wish there were more movies like it. I wish Tree of Life were a bit more like it, actually; I adored Tree of Life, but it wasn't until I saw Samsara that I realized why I was never quite able to embrace it as a Malick masterpiece. The problem wasn't that Tree of Life went too far into abstraction for my taste, but that it didn't go quite far enough. By anchoring ephemerally lovely images to a simple story and innocent/questing/banal voice-overs, Malick got as far away from mainstream narrative cinema cliches as he could without cutting the cord. Fricke cuts the cord. The result covers some of the same thematic ground as Tree of Life, and offers some similar images, but it's a much more direct, simple, free-spirited movie. It's experimental cinema pitched at mainstream audiences. As such, it has few equals.
The director/cinematographer and his editors juxtapose images of wealth and poverty, nature and civilization, war zones and dead bodies, guns and ammunition, old people and young people, people of different cultures and faiths, and shots of babies, village elder-types, packed commuter trains and oppressive offices and charnel-house factory farms, scudding clouds, plumes of volcanic steam, rivers of lava, image after image in section after section. But rather than string the images along a linear-philosophical clothesline stretched from cradle to grave, Samsara shuffles and reshuffles images like cards in a deck. The movie visits and then returns to images of individuals, crowds of people, animals and vehicles whirling in circles, and dancers posed so that the lead dancer in the foreground seems to have multiple arms, like a Hindu goddess. Every person, every country, every climate, every body of water, every type of terrain is connected: we sense this connectedness from the rhythms of the film, not because individual cuts are telling you, "See? This thing here is kinda like this thing over here."
There's no missing the disgust Fricke brings to shots of poultry being skinned and gutted, or the shots of shantytown residents digging through dumps while gleaming condominiums and office buildings loom behind them. And yet Samsara is not a didactic movie. It has a showman's sensibility. The probing closeups and geometrically lovely wide shots are presented as little movies in themselves, self-contained spectacles with their own internal logic and personality. Each shot is an object of contemplation, a springboard for emotion and reflection, but at the same time, the sheer handsomeness of the production says, "If you want to just sit back and enjoy this as a travelogue or a borderline-psychedelic sound-and-light show, that's fine, too." Samsara is the work of a guru, not an acolyte. Fricke is a master leading the audience through meditation, giving us suggestions for dreaming. Our mind takes us where it takes us.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the co-founder of Press Play.