Samsara: Toronto Review

Its sermonizing tone gets tiresome, but this follow-up from the team that made “Baraka” doesn’t stint on spectacle.

The title is a Tibetan word for the continuous life cycle, and the film follows a loose arc from birth through dehumanization, destruction and death to spiritual transcendence.

Director-cinematographer Ron Fricke and his team drew admirers in 1992 with their wordless, sensory day in the life of the planet, Baraka. Almost 20 years later, they continue that experiential journey, delivering another round of stunning visuals for armchair travelers and ethnographically inclined New Age stoners. The enormous advances in travelogue television have made their work less unique, but its bigger drawback is that Samsara is entirely too preachy for a non-verbal film.

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The title is a Tibetan word for the continuous life cycle, and the film follows a loose arc from birth through dehumanization, destruction and death to spiritual transcendence. Balinese dancers, infants being baptized, Buddhist monks crafting an intricate sand mandala, erupting volcanoes, jungles, deserts, Asian temples and magnificent European cathedrals – the connections among Fricke’s far-flung subjects initially appear somewhat random.

Gorgeous time-lapse sequences show tidal shifts, sunrises, the play of light across a stark landscape or over the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. Craggy mountains capped in ice and snow are seen alongside majestic waterfalls and wind-blasted rock corridors. Accompanied by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerard and Marcello de Francsici’s seductive score, this flow of images casts a poetic spell even if there’s a nagging tilt toward self-important solemnity. Anyone who had issues with Terrence Malick’s extended visual ruminations in The Tree of Life will likely do double the squirming here.

But the film really takes a ponderous turn into heavy-handed message-mongering when Fricke and his co-editor Mark Magidson (who also produced and co-wrote the original treatment) begin making more pointed juxtapositions. Natural vistas cede the screen to tangled freeways and built-up cities; virgin atolls to densely populated peninsulas; temples of worship make way for temples of industry; young monks gathering to pray are replaced by drones in office cubicles, tapping like robots at their keyboards.

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Around the time we see a shot of burkha-clad women in front of a homoerotic billboard advertising Dolce and Gabbana underwear, we say goodbye to subtlety. Accelerated footage shows floods of people entering and exiting subways, working on assembly lines or just striding to nowhere on treadmills. Some of the most disturbing sequences are those devoted to factory farming and meat processing, segueing directly to overweight fast-food diners and voracious consumers plundering big-box superstores. Mass production is seen side by side with mass disposal, extreme luxury with poverty.

We’re slapped over the head with evidence of the commodification of desire. One movement of this educational symphony skips from a woman preparing for a nose job to mannequins being painted to a freshly manufactured stock of vinyl sex dolls to a bar full of gyrating Thai dancers, before concluding with a closeup of a Japanese woman in full geisha garb shedding a single tear.

The toxicity of violence also comes into focus, with gun and bullet production, and a pan around a military cemetery that ends on an officer severely disfigured by a chemical explosion. Bizarrely, one family mourns over an open casket shaped like a giant pistol, while apple-pie Americans and ceremonially daubed tribal Africans alike shoulder rifles. Few will disagree that these images show a world gone badly wrong. Still, it’s a relief when the bludgeoning visual jeremiad reaches its crescendo.

That signals a return to religion. Some of these final sequences are indeed soul-stirring -- notably overhead shots of the sea of pilgrims at Mecca – but their positioning in the wake of so much ugliness reads as a simplistic suggestion that all of wounded humanity’s ills can be healed with prayer.

While the film’s grandiloquence might grate, its technical achievements are considerable, as no doubt were the logistical challenges of shooting in 25 countries, from Angola through Myanmar to the United Arab Emirates, often in spectacularly remote locations. Filmed in 65mm and scanned at ultra-high resolution for HD digital projection, the result doesn’t quite equal the impact of old-school 70mm presentation, but nor does it undersell the beauty and drama of Fricke’s images.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production company: Magidson Films
Director/director of photography: Ron Fricke
Original treatment: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson
Producer: Mark Magidson
Music: Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerard, Marcello de Francisci
Editors: Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson
Sales: ICM
No rating, 102 minutes