Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Ron Fricke, director, cinematographer, co-writer, co-editor
Mark Magidson, producer, co-writer, co-editor
Starring: the world (philosophically speaking)
NFB founder John Grierson once said of the great filmmaker Josef von Sternberg, “When a director dies, he becomes a cinematographer.” The director of Samsara, Ron Fricke, has never displayed the story-telling skills of a fine director. He only become one after the success of his cinematography in the groundbreaking Godfrey Reggio meta-film Koyaanisquatsi. While he got away with a poor narrative in Baraka (1992), he’s not so lucky this time.
Samsara means “continuous flow,” which only appears to be a nebulous term. While one can argue that film is a flow of images, samsara actually is a Buddhist and Hindu term referring to the flow of lives one passes through from one incarnation into another. Fricke and his collaborator Mark Magidson surely know that but they clearly decided to create something that is far less rigorous to produce: a Monumental film for the World.
The film traverses the terrains of 25 countries. We’re in deserts, rivers, snow and ice. From the East to the West, the camera flows– showing us poverty and riches, spirituality and materialism. Our eyes are overwhelmed with colour, crowds and the stuff of life. The music is fabulous, ranging from choral chants to low growls, from minimalism to glorious, near symphonic sounds. But what does it mean? And why does one follow the other?
Samsara often feels like a trailer for every doc of the past decade. Sequences decry fast food and the industrialized creation and murder of animals. Others celebrate the exuberance of travel in countries, where, paradoxically, extreme poverty abounds. Still others gaze in awe at the spiritual side of life.
This is an impressive film, full of ideas and images but missing a point-of-view. Samsara is a film of wonderful moments. It lacks the structural sense to be great. But it looks great. After all, Ron Fricke is a great cinematographer.