Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Samsara: A stunning ride with no destination

A disarming scene from “Samsara”

1.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Samsara
Directed by
Ron Fricke
Genre
Documentary
Classification
PG
Country
USA
Language
English
Year
2011

One doesn't have to be a Buddhist to perceive themes of circularity and renewal in Samsara, but it takes that level of patience to suffer its frequent low points with silence and good humour.

Supposedly intended as a spiritual sequel to Ron Fricke's previous non-narrative travelogue Baraka (1992), and as the cinematic equivalent of "guided meditation," Samsara feels first and foremost like a display of technical virtuosity. It was shot in 70 mm format, and the images have an amazing combination of massive scale and detailed texture.

Fricke and his crew lugged Panavision cameras across five continents, and certainly Samsara doesn't lack for topographical variety: There are bustling metropolises and spartan villages, cloistered mountain monasteries and sprawling sand dunes. The film similarly assembles a varied cast of human characters, most of whom are shot documentary-style, although there are also moments when Fricke pushes beyond. One memorable interlude features an actor in a suit who ends up smearing his immaculate visage with thickly textured warpaint until he resembles a melting, demonic spectre (of capitalism, which, within the film's globalized framework, literally haunts the world).

Story continues below advertisement

There is, of course, no obligation for a film like Samsara to be subtle in its commentary, and you could argue that rhetorical overstatement is needed in this case to measure up to the scope of the cinematography. But even by the standards of the quasi-essay-film subgenre that Fricke has long worked (he shot the seminal Koyaanisqatsi), Samsara feels blunt and over-determined. It piles on so many pointed tableaux of a technologically routinized (and implicitly soulless) society that it begins to resemble an inexorable machine itself – and this is not a compliment.

A shot of live chickens being fed through a whirling contraption sorting them for slaughter is emblematic of the film's strengths (striking images) and weaknesses (visual metaphors so on the nose that they're the cinematic equivalent of a deviated septum). It's not just chickens that are being forcibly processed. Westerners, Fricke suggests, are similarly oblivious to their status as grist for the global mill.

For every modestly poetic juxtaposition there's a clanger, like a sequence in which scantily clad women perform with a few scarily lifelike animatronic women scattered amongst them. It's also distracting that some of the scenarios Fricke uses to get things up to feature length have been explored at length and in greater depth in better films. A scene showcasing the assembly-line tactics at a Chinese factory seems to have been lifted (stylistically and thematically) from Jennifer Baichwal's Manufactured Landscapes.

It could be argued that such criticisms are beside the point, that Samsara is so clearly a sensory experience that any attempt to definitely parse its contents is futile. This is the "sit back and enjoy the ride" approach, and viewed that way, Samsara makes for a fair theme-park attraction. But the thing about roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls is that they don't really go anywhere – and can leave you feeling tired and worn out after the exhilaration of the first drop.

Report an error
About the Author

Adam Nayman is a contributing editor for Cinema Scope and writes on film for Montage, Sight and Sound, Reverse Shot and Cineaste. He is a lecturer at Ryerson and the University of Toronto and his first book, a critical study of Paul Verhoeven's SHOWGIRLS, will be published in 2014 by ECW Press. More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.