★★★ / ★★★★
Without the crutch of narration, dialogue, or subtitles, “Samsara” parades wave after wave of beautiful and curious images from across continents, cultures, and lifestyles. Yet although it ensnares us visually, it creates a spiritual experience in that it inspires the viewer to look within and question why specific images invoke certain emotions.
For instance, images that resonated with me most are those of dead bodies: mummified, fragile, empty. They are not scary, disgusting, or deformed, as they so often tend to look in horror films, but peaceful. There is a silent elegance and grace about them. As I stared at the former vessels on screen, I looked down at my own arms and hands. I noticed their color, where hairs are placed, the veins underneath the skin. It moved me because I was reminded of my own mortality—that eventually this body I inhabit will degrade and wither.
This is one of many examples that Ron Frickle’s documentary offers. “Samsara” is a Tibetan word for “the wheel of life,” and it is the theme that runs across the veins of its disparate but rich portraits. Notably, the middle section veers away from shots of nature and tribes who live in isolation. Instead, the focus is shifted toward our increasingly industrialized world, how impersonal and automated it has become, both the tools we employ to get the job done and how we are with one another. Still, however, the director is not interested in judgment. He simply captures the images, the truth regarding what is and where we might be heading as a society, and it is up to the viewer to extract an interpretation.
Visiting numerous exotic locales triggers a sense of wonder, from deep orange deserts to jagged icy mountains with streams slashing through them. Even if a person just so happens to have seen such places in person, the use of time lapse photography provides a new way to marvel at these wonders. For example, a statue of a giant face looks entirely different during the night than it does during daytime. When the sun sets, shadows thicken the statue’s brows and it creates an ominous feeling. When the sun rises, its countenance is welcoming, full of wisdom. We note its subtle colors, textures, crevices. Notice, too, that when time lapse is used when the focus is on majestic landscapes, shadows are slowly pulled back like blankets, revealing hidden details to admire and appreciate.
Some might note an apparent lack of flow as it jumps from one set of images to another. For instance, a few seconds in the sulfur mines of Indonesia is immediately followed by a marketplace in Africa. I enjoyed that at times it requires work to find the connective tissues. In this case, note how the camera focuses on the back of the sulfur carriers, some of them sporting wounds and callouses. Jumping to the marketplace, notice how women are carrying children on their backs. To me, the connecting idea is that the work being done, even or especially in dangerous conditions, is for the sake of supporting life, a family, the next generation. While it may take a bit of getting used to, it is not difficult to make these connections when the viewer adapts to the rhythm of this beguiling documentary.