In the past twenty years, the world has taken many great changes and few seem more aware about this than director Ron Fricke. Fricke told his perspective on society, both in developed and developing civilizations, with his 1992 masterpiece Baraka. Two decades later, he has returned to the same territory of Baraka but with a darker, more morbid view. The result of Fricke’s newest project, Samsara, does not live quite up to my sky high expectations or to its predecessor, but I found it captivating and rather interesting, if somewhat lacking of the originality that Baraka had.
Like Baraka, Samsara is an exploration of nearly all places of the world. There’s no narrative or underlying plot, just layers of metaphors over and over. Fricke juxtaposes the western way of life with that of the old, cutting from tribes in Africa to speeding highways or from temples to huge industrial buildings.
Samsara has many similar locations that Baraka had, but communicates a different message. Take the butcher factory scene, for example. In Baraka, Fricke conveyed the importance of organization of how the human race managed to construct such a device, which allowed chicks to flow through slides and land on conveyor belts. For Samsara, Fricke seems to have changed the attitude, pointing his camera to the butchering of animals in such disgust, with chickens being chopped up and pigs being sliced open.
The darker tone does seem to be the core of Samsara, as Fricke shows more disaffection to many current environmental problems, from pollution and waste to selfishness and carelessness (he takes us immediately from a fast food restaurant to a hospital where a doctor is marking an obese man’s belly). Fricke’s complaints are ones I can identify and agree with, but it does grow repetitive at times and felt somewhat parody-like (switching from a group of Thai strippers to a woman crying seemed forced) often that I grew tired in the last twenty minutes or so. A bizarre episode happens where a man covers his face in clay and marks himself with paint, only to strip it off and place it back on again. It’s a tremendously exciting and disturbing scene, but its message seemed a bit meaningless and does not seem to belong in the film.
But Samsara makes up for its flaws with its sheer beauty. Fricke’s photography is stunning, using a Malickian eye on the natural and urban world. He utilizes nearly every camera movement from a cinematographer’s manual it’s impossible not to be dazzled.
A second viewing might help me grasp Samsara more (it took me two times to embrace the majesty of Baraka), but it’s a deeply moving and personal picture.