The visual spectacle of the wordless documentary Samsara is the result of five years of filming in twenty-five countries on five continents.
It’s a portrait of how big and beautiful the world can be while tensely holding out the promise that, with a random tsunami or volcanic eruption, the ground can shift beneath an entire country’s feet.
What director and cinematographer Ron Fricke has captured is similar to the Qatsi trilogy of films, which began in 1982 with Koyaanisqatsi. Like those, Fricke’s movie is a compendium of sights and sounds from all over the globe that include but aren’t limited to sacred grounds and rituals, the aftermath of disasters, natural wonders, and industrial chaos.
Given that wide of a berth, the segments alternate between the tranquil and meditative or chaotic and painful. Contrast the scenes where the camera glides through the brilliantly orange striated canyons of the Southwest United States to silent shots of what appear to be the mud-caked innards of schools and churches pummeled by the 2010 tsunami.
The parallels between disparate environments are effortlessly asserted with sharp editing, like how the eerie faces and portals of Japanese sex dolls are followed by portraits of African villagers ornately made-up and accessorized followed by an overhead shot of a heavily tattooed man cradling an infant. The elongated braids streaming down the head of a villager bleed into the ribbons of highways encircling Los Angeles.
Points, too, are made about how structures and architecture adapt to people’s needs in any given century. There are shots of ancient mosques juxtaposed with new developments in places like Dubai, where entire neighborhoods are built atop miles-long appendages freshly jutting out from the beach. And there’s a unifying comment about circuitous motion, as in scenes of revolving factory machinery and throngs of Muslims celebrating at Mecca.
What made the Qatsi films so piercing was Philip Glass’s score, and Samsara is missing that kind of symphonic thread. It also relies too often and too predictably on speeded up images of, say, commuters in subway stations or L.A. traffic; there’s nothing novel there. Still, the movie is a compelling scrapbook of a living, breathing planet.