Samsara – Review

Sweeping across the temples of Myanmar

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a beautiful, enormous world, and for the last 110 years we have had at our disposal the technology to capture its beauty in motion. The makers of Samsara are people who understand that, in its simplest form, cinema is a visual medium that can reveal to viewers the image of anything that exists. So they have some lofty ambitions to begin with, that’s for sure.

Ron Fricke is responsible for the two most important works of “the world as it is” cinema of the last 30 years, as cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi and director of Baraka, to which Samsara is a spiritual successor. Coming a full 20 years after Baraka, Samsara follows the same concept of juxtaposing imagery of the old, the new, and the timeless, scored by various genres of music, from tribal to drum & bass. It’s hard to describe to the uninitiated, but imagine touring the entire world in 90 minutes, stopping occasionally on your hurricane voyage to inspect the faces of strangers from the furthest corners of the Earth. Samsara is an adventure where you are an omnipotent explorer.

Shot in 25 countries over four years entirely on 70mm film stock, there are too many highlights to list here. Amongst them are throngs of Muslims circling the Grand Mosque at Mecca filmed at high-speed, the camera sailing over endless sand dunes, Tibetan monks slowly creating a vastly detailed, floor-sized artwork out of coloured grains of sand, and a heavily choreographed prison dance number.

Samsara’s seemingly endless array of images and ideas never ceases to boggle the mind; however, the film shows a curious bias towards imagery from Asia, with South America and Australia unnoticed and Europe represented by its cathedrals alone. In this way, Fricke and co. seem to undermine their own message, or at least the sensation that message is meant to evoke.

The film’s most memorable (and, by extension, troubling) sequence is a piece of performance art by a man dressed as a typical Western businessman who, sitting at his desk, enters into a tribalistic frenzy, painting himself with ink, paste and items of stationary as if in an aboriginal ritual. What it says about mankind’s rise from “savagery” to “civilisation” is clear, but its staginess clashes frustratingly with the “world as it is” feel of the film as a whole.

But with that one curious exception, the juxtaposition of images continues to impress. The film takes an extended trip through the Uncanny Valley, showing frighteningly lifelike android heads and heavily detailed synthetic sex dolls. Images of obscure African tribesmen are echoed superbly in the extremes of Japan’s youth subcultures. Shanghai’s slums are seen with tacky, towering skyscrapers in the distance.

The old and the new: ancient customs meet modern firepower

What disappoints most about Samsara is how little it builds upon Baraka and how the world has changed in the 20 years since. There are glimpses of technological advancement – the aforementioned robot tech, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, a block of trash made entirely of discarded circuit boards – but many of the speeding cityscapes and all of the historic and natural landmarks could have been shot back in the early ‘90s. The most dramatic shift in day-to-day human life, the ease of access to information through technology, is represented in only one shot – bored New Yorkers glued to their mobile phones (and one to an iPad) as they ride exercise bikes at a gym. The image speaks volumes, but it is one of a small few that can answer the question “why now?” with regards this film.

Where Samsara really calls back to Baraka is in extending the latter’s most infamous sequence, which saw hordes of tiny chicks pouring down a cascading series of conveyer belts to begin a terrifying life of claustrophobic captivity. Here the food process is seen in greater, more distressing detail, as adult chickens are hoovered back up a conveyer belt towards a fate on a hook, cows are seen living their lives on what is little more than an enormous roulette wheel, and pig meat is stripped and sawn into pieces for distribution. Its message is important, but with these added grotesqueries it says little more than Baraka said with its hapless, tragic chicks.

Samsara is at times too heavy-handed with its messages, at others too obscure. But while it is overall more mournful in its tone than Baraka was, it is no less mesmerising. Sit back and enjoy as it makes gentle love to your eyeballs. Everything else in your day is going to look far less magical by comparison.


(originally published at



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5 responses to “Samsara – Review

  1. Is more Baraka really a bad thing?

  2. dave

    Oh, certainly not! Though it’d be nice if they built on it rather than just more of the (wonderful) same.

  3. Love Jordina

    What’s the name of the performer “Man behind the desk”?

  4. dave

    Hi Jordina, I’ve done a bit of digging but afraid I can’t find a name for him. It may be in the credits at the end, so when the film is released on DVD can check for you.

  5. Matt

    I really don’t think that it’s meant to be about entirely wonderful things, in fact it appears as if the melancholy and pessimism of the situation only becomes exemplified in the second film, and not to appeal to the viewer either, but rather to give them more objects of horror to fear.

    I think that it was a solid filmography decision to make; else, we humble viewers may have taken the message of this film to be that the world is delightful and that to seek fulfillment on our journey that we should become tourists to see places such as the temples of Mayanmar – no, not so, the film clearly attempts to dissuade us from possessing vanity by pointing us towards the errors of our moral fabric – now, instead of thinking that we are beautiful and worthy enough to visit places like Mayanmar, we are told that we are ugly and pitiful and certainly shouldn’t be allowed to enter.

    I think this is the correct message to send to viewers and I think that the directors did a great job of not glamorizing the majesty of this world by introducing an equal amount of pain and fragility into the picture.

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