Review of Samsara

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Filmed over a period of five years in twenty-five countries on five continents, and shot on 70mm film, Samsara transports us to the varied worlds of sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural wonders.
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Movie Review: "Samsara"

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2012
Directed by: Ron Fricke
Genre: Documentary

The best documentaries are those that strike a chord in the heart of viewers. The film "Samsara" will likely strike that cord for many viewers. Director Ron Fricke used a unique filming method, using 70-millimeter cameras that add a vibrancy and beauty that other films of this type often lack. Some of the best shots in the film come when Fricke uses time-lapse photography. These scenes show minute changes that many viewers would miss on film.

"Samsara" does not tell a story in the traditional sense, but it offers an inside look at religion. Named for a term that refers to a life cycle that includes reincarnation, the film focuses on how some people view religion. The film opens with a series of Buddhist monks working on an elaborate sand sculpture. The monks appear again at the end of the film, offering a commentary on the importance of the lifecycle.

Fricke avoids the temptation to highlight religious scholars discussing religion, instead focusing on shots of figures and objects that relate back to that cycle. Fricke spends much of his time in China, showing what religion means to people living there. The shots of workers lining up at some of the top factories are a sharp contrast to the dilapidated houses that those workers can no longer afford.

Watching "Samsara," some viewers might wonder about the connection between religion and labor. Fricke draws that connection by comparing factory workers to others attending church. The shots of people lining up outside the Kaaba are similar to the shots of workers in the factories.

The imagery in the film is striking at times, especially when Fricke uses cutaway scenes. One of the most memorable scenes in the film comes when workers in one factory create life-size dolls for men before the shot switches to a series of women dancing across a bar in Thailand. Fricke takes things a step further by showing a traditional Geisha crying after those two scenes.

While the film focuses on religion, it also offers a glimpse at the changing world, particularly in Asia. The references to sex are sometimes unsettling, especially those moments when Fricke combines traditional and modern elements. The film jumps between scenes quickly, showing a shot of a religious man baptizing babies before jumping to crowds of people climbing off a commuter train.

In another scene, Fricke jumps from scenes of traditional Shaolin monks practicing their art before jumping to golfers on a golf course. Another scene shows women in traditional Indian garb standing inside a shopping center. While the scene might not mean much to most viewers, those who watch closely can see the scantily clad models decorating stores in the background.

The problem with "Samsara" is that the director sometimes jumps between scenes too quickly. Before viewers can get too involved in the moment, the film jumps to another scene. There are only a few scenes in the film that actually pull the viewer into the moment, and far too many scenes go by too quickly.

"Samsara" sometimes plays like an extended slideshow, especially when the director shows multiple shots in just a few seconds. Some viewers might think that they can see the same things when surfing the Web or browsing religious websites. Those who think that way are mistaken because the film offers something completely different. "Samsara" is an experience that will leave viewers wanting to know and see more.

Fricke and his cinematographer, Mark Magidson, spent more than five years working on this film. The duo spent years researching each location, ensuring that they found the best locations. Fricke also collaborated with Michael Stearns, who provided the orchestral soundtrack for the film. The score playing in the background highlights some of the most important scenes, providing the perfect atmosphere for those moments.

Some viewers might find the lack of words uncomfortable. Fricke purposefully avoided discussions and conversations because he wanted each viewer to come away with a different experience. Those who make it to the end of the film will find that it draws a connection between all of those fast-paced scenes. Whether it's a shot of the beautiful sunset in Dubai or a scene of a hurried businessman walking down the street, every one of those scenes has a connection to the bigger picture.

"Samsara" occasionally plays like an extended dream sequence. The shots are so beautiful that those moments have an almost surreal quality. From the opening scenes of the monks, to the last scene when those monks reappear, "Samsara" creates a visual landscape that will keep viewers entertained.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars