Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
September 6, 2012
*1/2 (out of four)
You may assume “Samsara” is Latin for “movie I don’t plan to see” or “some random documentary I’ve never heard of.” Based on buzz, I hoped it would stand for, “Gorgeous, odd experience that’s more memorable than something like ‘Hit and Run.’”
The joke’s on me. Don’t get me wrong; the wordless doc “Samsara” (which actually refers to the world’s constant flow) looks lovely. Director Ron Fricke shot 70 mm footage on five continents over five years, capturing everything from cows being milked to pigs being split open to prisoners dancing to ornate chandeliers and hand-painted ceilings.
Rarely do the juxtapositions have anything to say. Time-lapse footage of subways and Costco pretty much boil down to, “We’re busy, aren’t we?” and notions of conservative versus open-minded dress in various cultures should be news to nobody. As for depictions of breastfeeding and highways, bullet manufacturing and Asian bikini dance contests, the movie just presents a lot of stuff and leaves it at that.
Certainly some will be hypnotized by the film’s music-accented rhythms and slow drifts over landscapes, whether it’s smoke clouds over a volcano or the sun passing over a mountain. It’s worth considering some of the intersections between the natural and man-made worlds, and what might make someone want to be buried in a gun-shaped coffin.
Yet “Samsara” lacks any sense of who, when, where and why to its imagery. That results in a superficial film (mildly reminiscent of the doc “Babies”) that encourages us to judge people and places by their covers. Maybe you disagree, but I prefer a raw, informed presentation than a film that invites us to be casual observers through a beautiful lens.
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