The vaguely titled website Movies.com says “Samsara” is “the year’s best movie to see in a theater,” and this is one time a gushing blurb is 100 percent accurate.
To understand why, one must first know this: Director Ron Fricke’s film is a wordless, non-narrative documentary, an imaginative, boldly filmed travelogue, if you will, shot over five years on five different continents.
This likely brings to mind the kind of weak-kneed, hourlong films on cable, the kinds of things we suffered through in grade school. “Samsara” is not that. It is that rarity – a big-screen must-see.
I rented Fricke’s 1992 film “Baraka” and watched it at home. Another non-narrative journey around the globe, it was certainly beautiful, and it was often downright stunning. It is a superior film.
But with “Samsara” now in cinemas, “Baraka” is not a superior experience. As an all-enveloping cinematic event, “Baraka” simply can’t compete with “Samsara.” It’s akin to looking at a picture of the Taj Mahal in a dog-eared National Geographic from the late 1970s after standing before the real thing: It just ain’t the same.
Even watching “Baraka” in such an inopportune way, however, it was hard not to feel a peculiar sense of déjà vu with “Samsara.” It is “Baraka” modernized, with Androids, tablets and Costco-esque superstores. Many shots, including several that utilize time-lapse photography, could have come directly from “Baraka.”
So that means it feels like an extension, rather than something completely fresh. That does not mean, however, that “Samsara” isn’t the most sumptuous visual creation of 2012.
According to the film’s website, samsara is a Sanskrit word that means “the ever-turning wheel of life,” and that rather general description is sensible. Opening and closing with Tibetan monks at work on a gloriously intricate mandala – a form of sand art – we wander around the globe.
Sometimes we are stared at directly (the dancing children at the beginning of the film intensely gaze at the camera, the female prison inmates in the Philippines). At other points, we are bystanders (watching a true sea of worshippers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca or a seemingly destroyed town – including an abandoned Dollar Tree).
Some shots are haunting. I was especially troubled by the scenes of chickens sucked into a tractorlike device for sorting and the sight of hanging pigs being sliced open. I applaud Fricke’s inclusion of such sequences, and even though it’s a bit mean, I chuckled at his cut from one such factory to an obese family downing burgers and fries.
That jump cut is thematically successful, if obvious, and this obviousness is a recurring problem. Many of Fricke’s cuts feel forced, and that’s a feeling at odds with the film’s visual finesse.
Such issues are minor, though. Even if it fails to reach the heights of “Baraka,” “Samsara” is a stunning series of sights to behold, and like the earlier film, part of what makes watching the film so fascinating is the lack of identification – there are no datelines, no locations given, no figures named. We could be anywhere on the planet, and as viewers, we vainly search for clues.
At film’s end, we return to the Tibetan monks, and the sand art, and an act that causes our jaws to drop and then close, since in the context of the film, their actions make complete sense. At moments like this, “Samsara” takes your breath away. Don’t watch it on your iPad.
3 and 1/2 stars
Director: Ron Fricke
Running time: 102 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some disturbing and violent sequences.
The Lowdown: Non-narrative documentary filmed in 25 countries over five years.