Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten
Director/ Photographer/ Editor: Ron Fricke
Producer: Mark Magidson
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/31/12
Opens: August 24, 2012
If you resent the prices at the local cinema especially in big cities where the tariff could be $13 for adults and $20 for 3-D, you’re justified, of course, particularly when you have a family of four that demands a weekly treat. But how would you like to go to a movie that allows you to save $15,000 per person, maybe more? Head for “Samsara,” four and one-half years in the making, a travelogue that will take you to twenty-five countries without the hassle of airline delays and slow-moving, lazy customs inspectors. Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, fresh from having make the film “Baraka” taken via an itinerary of twenty-three countries comparing natural and technological phenomena, have now spread themselves through exotic places like Namibia and Myanmar, failing only to get clearance from the North Koreans.
“Samsara” is not just an aimless travelogue. Just as “Baraka” showed us that we’re all pretty much alike despite our cultural differences, “Samsara” (the world means “cyclic existence” if you remember your high-school Sanskrit) deals with humanity’s relationship to the eternal. What does that mean exactly? I don’t know, but I know a solid documentary when I see one and adore any non-fiction film that downgrades the importance of talking heads. In fact there is no talking at all in “Samsara,” which in itself makes if soar over the pretensions of vocal “experts” in various fields.
If there is a theme that binds diverse locations it is the cycle of birth, dehumanization, destruction, death, and spiritual transcendence. For birth, Fricke looks at a baptism, a simple job of pouring from a pitcher of water over the heads of some babies and youths. For dehumanization, we need only look at the soulless work of scores of people filling bullets with gunpowder or the sight of chickens and cows on a large agribusiness and a pig farm in China. The chickens are literally swept off the floor with a huge vacuum cleaner that sorts them into crates. For destruction consider the specialized sand painting 12,000 feet up in India as monks painstakingly craft a work of art that could pass for an expensive bit of carpeting, then mushing it all up and starting again.
One remarkable shot that could be considered either dehumanization or spiritual transcendence takes place in a correction institution in the Philippines as male prisoners dance as though choreographed by Alvin Ailey or Agnes De Mille, watched by a lone guard and a bevy of women prisoners who remain behind bars throughout. Try pulling that off at Rikers! Similarly groups of soldiers march in step as though a single person in a discipline that could have been inspired by a gymnastic teacher in Pyongyang.
And think of the dehumanization of obese people shoveling fast food and drink into their gullets, not as though they were in a movie by Morgan Spurlock but through Ron Fricke’s signature time-lapse photography, allowing them to eat an entire meal in half a minute. Similar time-lapse photography takes shape in big cities as cars, looking like ants traversing a desert, zip by, going who-know-where-and-for-what-irrelevant-purpose.
The most ghoulish site, one which at first looks like a make-up job, is a close-up of a soldier disfigured by a chemical explosion, filled with metals on his jacket as though to cast an ironic statement by the director-photographer. Waterfalls are a marvel as are the pilgrims at Mecca, seemingly a million or more Muslims bowing simultaneously around Islam’s most sacred black stone, or al-Hajar-al-Aswad which is said to date back to Adam and Eve. While Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime, there are so many here that one might guess that the entire Islamic world has gathered.
Fricke does not use a digital camera as you would if you traveled the globe, but a big 65mm job, scanning at ultra-high resolution for HD digital projection. The images captured are breathtaking.
Rated PG-13. 105 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+