Samsara (3 stars)


Visually astounding filmmaking let down by Ron Fricke's didactic style

As the director of photography on Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and director of Chronos and Baraka, Ron Fricke helped to invent the language of this sort of lavish, meditative, non-narrative collage film. Samsara was shot in over a hundred locations over four years, and follows Baraka in deploying an array of imagery both dramatic and everyday to evoke the variety of human experience. But if the emphasis is on contrast and change, spontaneity isn’t exactly the keynote: Fricke is a finicky craftsman, into operatic scale and Busby Berkeley choreography, and his impulse is to impose order on what he sees. So the comforting but disingenuous implication is that human behaviour falls into natural, aesthetically resonant patterns that slow-dance us all through a great cycle of connectedness.

Much of what’s onscreen is so beautiful as to be physically affecting, from sweeping views of mountain temples to artworks of breathtaking intricacy in the process of creation. Yet Fricke’s approach as a director is didactic, and his messages not always palatable. Individuals are placed in front of the camera to stare solemnly into it, representing their ethnicities like cut-out dolls. Trite juxtapositions increase in frequency as the film goes on: a sex doll factory cuts to transsexual South-East Asian pole dancers, slaughterhouses to fat Americans scarfing down burgers. A heavily tattooed man holds a baby; veiled Muslim women flank a billboard of topless hunks. These are the brash pseudo-profundities of a Benetton ad, and condescending besides: who is Fricke to equate people with sex dolls or to jab at a stranger’s choice of lunch? Is that geisha shedding a tear because of her objectification, or because he's made her sit still for an hour without blinking while he gets his shot? Samsara must be recommended for the wonders of its photography and the range of its ideas. Few films have ever gone so far to make you gasp, sometimes with shock, mostly with sheer aesthetic pleasure. But one does wish that before his trip, Fricke had left a few of his judgments at home.

Selected release from Fri 31 Aug.

Samsara Trailer (Documentary 2012)


  • 3 stars
  • 2011
  • US
  • 1h 42min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Ron Fricke
  • UK release: 31 August 2012

Lavish, meditative, non-narrative, visually stunning documentary from the director of Chronos and Baraka. The photography is wonderful and the range of ideas is enormous, but there's also something condescending and judgmental in the trite juxtaposition of, for example, a sex doll factory and a scene of transsexual pole…