How truly wonderful to have such a sterling example of what filmmaking can do better than any other art form: near-wordlessly taking us to places most human beings will never visit while simultaneously offering a subtle report card as how, collectively, we are faring on planet Earth.
Samsara (Sanskrit for the ever-turning wheel of life) visits twenty-five countries over the span of a five-year shoot. Happily, there is no narrator: viewers are left to their own devices and imaginations to unravel the events, savour the exquisite cinematography (Ron Fricke who also directed and co-wrote the concept/treatment with producer Mark Magdison) and decide for themselves where they are (literally and figuratively) and how they might feel about the current state of the human race.
Of course, a wordless film (aside from a few lyrics in native tongues) is hugely dependent on the music to reinforce and sustain the imagery. The compositional trifecta of Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci have crafted a score that deftly complements the film’s broad scope by employing all manner of pedals over which a huge variety of instruments and voices can spot-colour the visual banquet while remaining anchored to the far-reaching vision of the filmmakers. Accordingly, all manner of mallets, flutes (notably pan), a stoic then freewheeling church organ, pulsating drums (unforgettable is the gradually slowing large drum that magically morphs into a heartbeat), growling low brass, a pitch-perfect soprano soaring at will, and a covey of indigenous chants are employed. While the pictures more than live up to the “1,000 words” adage, the music stands shoulder to shoulder with the 70mm frames, showering the ear with bar after bar (and occasional silence: less can always “sound” louder than more—just ask Haydn) of texture, tone and emotion.
Right from the beginning, it’s clear that those watching will be stared back at by dancers, felons, a disfigured war vet (oddly at one with the Phantom of the Opera unmasked and a stunning sequence of a mild-mannered professor dipping deeply into his makeup kit to become all kinds of hideous creatures: Lon Chaney redux), bare-chested criminals in the making, blank-faced robots, young Tibetan monk trainees learning the painstaking art of creating a spectacular sand mandala from their elders (which triggered memories of seeing the process firsthand at the Provincial Museum of Alberta in 2001), and a beautifully synchronized array of peacock eyes as an Asian goddess—conjuring up, Hera, Saraswat or Lord Karthikeya's wivesi—was brought to full feather by a team of ideally choreographed dancers.
Not all is happiness and joy. How could it be, this is our planet! The abject poverty of shantytowns, literal backbreaking mining, fanciful child caskets (which led to the disturbing image of a coffin shaped like a pistol being delicately lowered into the ground, cuing the ensuing sequence on all-manner of guns, rifles, bullets and wars) and the pathetic reality of manmade walls being erected (then and now) to keep “those people” out of “our” space.
At many junctures, Fricke superbly uses time-lapse (the first shadow startles: was that an evil spirit flitting around the ghost town?) and slow-motion (thousands upon thousands of worshippers at Mecca readily dwarf even America’s devotion to the NFL) techniques to provide variety and simultaneously establish discreet points of view.
Those who admire Bollywood productions will savour the inmates from the Philippines’ maximum security Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center as they put their sneakers to the cement in a dance routine that kills just as much as some of the participants. The dour female warden quietly looking on is yet another deft touch.
By journey’s end, the film comes full circle, tying everything together with the notion that even the finest art in the world can dissipate in seconds, leaving its creators with a blank canvas while the shifting sands of time find only wind to accompany their silent, ever-changing forms. JWR