The enjoyment of any film is going to vary from viewer to viewer — it’s nigh on to impossible to create an unfettered consensus when it comes to any piece art. Being a non-verbal documentary in the vein of Baraka (1992) and Koyaanisqatsi (1982) — one built wholly on matching dramatic imagery from around the world with music — Ron Fricke’s Samsara proves this to the extreme. Being a fan of narrative film, I’ll be the first to admit that this is simply not the type of movie I’m normally attracted to seeing. Despite the film’s undeniably beautiful photography — its one and only selling point — there’s a level of patience and tolerance for pretension that one must have to get the most out of this documentary.
As the title references, the film is abstractly about the cycle of life, namely life and decay. It is all bookended by footage of monks making an intricate sand painting of Samsara that’s eventually destroyed by its makers. The bulk of the film documents decay, from eroded, ancient monuments, to ammunitions manufacturing, to dead chickens. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, for instance, this is all handled in the most abstract manner, right down to some seemingly random fits of imagery— like, for instance, rows of headless Real Dolls — which are included for maximum strangeness. Occasionally, the film can be a bit ham-fisted in its intention, like its footage of people getting on and off crowded subway cars juxtaposed with chickens being herded up for slaughter. Charlie Chaplin summed up this idea in the first minute of Modern Times in 1936, yet Samsara feels the need to cover it for 10 minutes. Regardless, there’s enough vagueness in those minutes to allow the audience to apply nearly any meaning — or any level of importance — onto the totality of the film. For some, Samsara will scale the heights of profundity. For others — and I include myself in this category — the movie’s constantly on the verge of spiraling into total poppycock.
A lot of this has to do with the repetitive nature of the film. Yes, Samsara is one of the most gorgeous-looking movies you’re likely to find, but as cinema it’s a bit bland. After a while, the camerawork — consisting of scads of slow pans and time-lapse photography — and the monotonous compositional style becomes predictable. No matter how stunning the visuals are, Samsara becomes dull and unexciting. When you’ve repeatedly seen the same slow pan upward, or the same stern emotionless look from one of the film’s human subjects for the 10th time, a good bit of the novelty begins to wear off — all of which is compounded by an uninteresting score that rarely adds to the film.
This doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t have moments worth seeing. A time-lapsed sequence toward the middle of the film that documents factory workers is extremely effective, but this is a short few minutes in a long movie. Samsara isn’t a movie without interest, but it is the epitome of an acquired taste. Rated PG-13 for some disturbing and sexual images.