Samsara review

Unique director Ron Fricke returns with another on-of-a-kind documentary, Samsara. Here’s Luke’s review of a visually stunning film...

Saying that you should really see Samsara on the big screen may sound like a hollow endorsement. After all, every film is best viewed in the cinema. Even the crappy ones, like Streetfighter, are better for it (18 years on and I still have fond memories of seeing that with my Dad, who took time out from cleaning his shed and still thinks he would have been better off sticking with the shed).

Where better to surrender yourself to a flow of images than in a theatre where you’re at the whim of those images? Blu-rays may have ushered in a new era of really nice looking films at home, but they’re still prisoners to that pause button, when really it should be other way round. Cinema, as well as being able to make film big and beautiful, has the power to hold you captive, rooted in your seat. In a time when we’re distracted by so much noise and clutter, that’s really good.

And Samsara, a film that has no narrative or dialogue, really should be seen in the cinema. Really. It’ll try your patience at times, feeling like a longer movie than The Dark Knight Rises even though it’s about an hour shorter. But it’s cinema as spectacle and provocateur, at times hypnotic and beautiful, at others frustrating and repetitive. Not a Friday-night-let-your-hair-down experience by any means. Go see Ted for that (another great cinematic experience).

Samsara is like Terence Malick’s The Tree Of Life without that middle story bit featuring Brad Pitt, a sprawling view of the world filled with visual splendour. Although that’s not to cite Tree Of Life as an influence here. If anything, it’s the other way round. Samsara’s creator, Ron Fricke, has been making this kind of film for some 30 years, starting with 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi. There he played cinematographer to director Godfrey Reggio, pioneering time-lapse photography to show incredible feats of human engineering and their impact on the world, sometimes good, sometimes not so.

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It’s now quite a common tool, cropping up in everything from commercials to nature documentaries, but the Qatsi films (there are two more – Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi, each not quite as good as their predecessor) still look remarkable for it. Likewise, Fricke’s first feature length film as director, Baraka, 20 years old this year but better looking than most films that have come out since.

The reason for that is Fricke’s a true cinematic purist, shooting on 70mm when most films are shot on 35mm (more mm’s, more resolution). And Samsara is even better, a 70mm film converted to digital 4k. Which really just means that it looks absolutely incredible. No grain, no jumps, no blurring. It’s like that scene in the original Spider-Man when Tobey Maguire wakes post-spider bite and realises his glasses are actually making things fuzzy. Watching Samsara is like being given a new set of eyes.

And Fricke makes splendid use of it by focusing on eyes, his camera capturing people staring right back at us as we stare at them. It’s unnerving and fascinating; on one hand because it’s so rare to really lock eyes with someone for that long a stretch. And on the other because Fricke plays around with notions of artificial and human, robotic and organic.

Elsewhere, he frames images so dream-like and other-worldly that you might find yourself asking two questions: Where is this place? And is it real? Fricke may have made the most loyal Philip K Dick adaptation not based on a Philip K Dick novel.

He can also switch emotional beats in a matter of seconds, having us laugh at a man being buried in a huge, gun-shaped coffin, and then look on in horror at the mass production of handguns and bullets.

If you’ve seen any of the Qatsi films or Baraka, that sense of wonder at the images and storytelling on show here may lose some of its sparkle. Fricke returns to some of the messages covered by those films – consumers as conveyor belt automatons, Asia is really beautiful, we’re all rushing around but not really going anywhere – making Samsara drag a little in its final third.

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But that’s about as mean as I can be. If you like cinema, Samsara is exactly that, and in its most pure form. It has the power to inspire awe and wonder by the simplest of means – the flow of images one after another – but with the most incredible use of these means.

Samsara is out in UK cinemas today.

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4 out of 5