There aren’t many other ways to describe the film: Samsara is an experience.
In less than two hours, the movie travels around the globe, touching on love, death, time, space and even robotics.
The name of the movie comes from the Sanskrit word for the cyclical nature of life. Fricke’s film embraces the concept, eschewing a narrative, characters and even dialogue for an audio-visual assault designed to draw connections to all aspects of the world.
Instead of a telling a story, Samsara flows around themes. In the film, the larger connections stem from a shared location or concept, be it parenthood, motion, organization or death.
The closest the film gets to a scripted scene is a sequence focused on the meat industry, where the stream of consciousness flow of the film is thrown out for a few minutes to focus on the life — and death — of animals that serve as food for humans. It’s jarring, because it’s the first in a series of truly visceral scenes scattered throughout the film.
The film is a visual masterpiece. Fricke, who also handled the cinematography, filmed the entire movie on sharp 70 mm film. Almost every frame can stand alone as a work of art. Sweeping panoramas and lush landscapes — often featuring unusual shapes or buildings — weave through the film, coming to life on the big screen as if viewers are seeing them first-hand. And the fact that the images come from natural occurrences around the world make them all the more magnificent.
Fricke assembles the movie through heavy use of montages and time lapses. Contrast and juxtaposition, rather than jarring transitions, bring stark visuals to life, such as a flyover of Shanghai’s slums that literally come within feet of modern luxury highrises. There’s a stunning sequence of Downtown Los Angeles at night that, in contrast to the nature-dominant early scenes, brings the film into the urban world and highlights a different community.
Samsara, however, isn’t just about landscapes and geography. It’s a showcase of humanity, and though each section is isolated from the another by distance and language, Fricke goes back time and again to the human element. He reuses the same set-up: a full-frontal close-up of the people on film, presenting them to the audience without gimmicks or motion.
Part of what makes this film so powerful is its music. Composer Michael Stearns and a team of collaborators put emotion and tone to the footage, delivering a mix ranging from peaceful ambient sounds to soaring arrangements. But the movie’s creators know when to dial back the music, letting the natural sounds of waterfalls or horns carry the scene.
Much of the film’s brilliance comes from the way it highlights parts of the world that are not really seen; Samsara focuses on remote locations and sections of life ignored by others. The film dives into slums, abandoned buildings and prisons. There is an unexpected but bouncy scene where dozens of Chinese inmates participate in a choreographed dance routine. It’s odd and unexplained but is completely captivating.
Most of these scenes are cheery or uplifting, but sometimes the film gets weird. There’s an unsettling scene in France involving an apparent performance artist who manically puts on clay masks and paints on them. If it were not so elegantly shot and edited, it wouldn’t fit with the flow or themes of the movie, but it looks just as good as the rest of the picture.
Samsara demands to be seen on the big screen. The film captivates and does more to tie its sections together with just strong editing and music than most scripted narratives.
Despite its lack of a story, Samsara manages to make a strong point: The world is more connected than one might imagine. The film is a testament to natural and man-made beauty.