A Sanskrit word that means “the ever turning wheel of life,” Samsara is a film that’s nigh on impossible to review.
word that means “the ever turning wheel of life,” Samsara is a film
that’s nigh on impossible to review. Shot entirely in 70mm and filmed across
25 countries over a 5-year period, it takes the form not so much of a documentary
but something closer to a narrative-free, non-verbal, guided meditation. As such, its appeal is probably limited
to dabblers in Eastern esoterica and New Age mysticism.
The film isn’t completely without narrative however, and
it certainly isn’t without ambition, as it traces the cycle of birth, life,
death and rebirth in all its pain, joy and glory, the long journey to spiritual
enlightenment and a state of Nirvana.
Every exit is an entry somewhere else. Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it.
Images of extreme poverty jostle with images of consumer
excess, the spiritual with the mundane. The film
opens and closes with exquisite Balinese dancers. Buddhist monks create a huge, elaborate, intensely intricate
representation of the world with individually coloured grains of sand. Factory workers, sweatshops, animals in
battery farms. Hellish sulphur
mines. Post-Katrina wreckage. Vast
empty desert vistas. Ruined jungle
temples. Third World slums. Tribesmen at one with nature. A Japanese inventor communing with his
robotic replica. Middle American
children posing with their rifles, African child soldiers with theirs. We tour the grand cathedrals of Europe,
the ornate mosques of the near East.
We drop in on Mecca for the Hajj. Philippine prisoners dance in carefully choreographed dance
routines destined for YouTube.
Babies are born, the sick and elderly die. Thai ladyboys dance in a nightclub. Once it’s complete and perfect, the
monks destroy their diagram. The
wheel turns on.
At its best, in the moments of quiet contemplative
reverie, the film is stunningly beautiful. Director Fricke
has captured exquisite moments and images that will be indelibly burned on your
brain and you will see influence a generation of filmmakers who will reproduce
shots in their entirety and harvest images for pop videos and feature
films. Samsara is gorgeous to look
at and, at times, more than a little soporific, but if you drop off to sleep
during a non-verbal guided meditation, is that such a bad thing?
Unfortunately, Samsara is also preachy, smug and
self-indulgent. How could it not
be? It’s a film made by middle
aged, middle class hippie filmmakers.
It rams home their views on the global economy, on the state of the
environment, global consumerism, the war between nature and
industrialisation. The war between
Man and Man, good and evil. The
American journalist H.L. Mencken once observed that: “One of the strangest
delusions of the Western mind is to the effect that a philosophy of profound
wisdom is on tap in the East.”
This is obviously the philosophy of the makers of Samsara. Commercialism is bad. Commercialism is wrong. The West is wrong. The West is bad. The East is good. We need to return to nature, to
spirituality. It’s ironic then
that the filmmakers spend $4million dollars and jet all around the world to
tell us this.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what this review, or any review of Samsara
says. It doesn’t matter if you buy
into its quasi-Buddhist spirituality, its anti-consumerist agenda. Samsara is both a beautiful, extraordinary artistic gesture designed purely as
a cinematic experience and a self-indulgent
exercise in mental and spiritual masturbation. Whatever the rating to your right is, ignore it. This review is unrated. It’s impossible to quantify Samsara in
that way. If you like this kind of
cinema, you’ll love it. If you don’t,
you won’t see it or you’ll sleep through it. Either way a rating is meaningless. Just go see it in
a decent cinema with good sound.
Let it wash over you.
Decide for yourself.