Imagine an ultra high-def 70 mm camera suddenly gained consciousness, sprouted wings, and decided to take a flying tour of the sprawling city of Miami for one long day, capturing life on all its bustling street corners and in its obscure pockets. The resulting film might pan from children chasing street chickens across cracked concrete in Little Haiti; to droves of traditionally-clothed Jews milling the sidewalks of Surfside on a Friday night; to an old woman straining to pluck an oily avocado off a tree in the Redlands; to graffiti artists composing new work in dim yellow street light in Wynwood; to a radiant orange sun setting over our placid Atlantic waters.
Now imagine that same camera got more ambitious and decided to travel the world -- 25 countries over the course of five years -- invading solemn Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and immense, fly-infested garbage dumps in the Philippines. It perched on a shoulder of a factory worker mechanically stuffing cabbage dumplings in China, floated face up under the florid domes of European cathedral ceilings, and watched the pilgrims melt into an undulating mass on the floors of a temple in Mecca. It partied with bouncing, vinyl bikini-clad, saccharin-smiling prostitutes in a brothel in an nameless city, and sat on a plastic bench with a swarm of obese patrons at a fast food restaurant as they stuffed their faces in time with an Indian drum beat.
This is just a snippet of the Samsara experience, a near two-hour immersion in life on earth in its many shades and shapes.
Filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, who co-created the also-wordless, image-driven, mostly religious-themed Baraka in 1992, are behind this hypnotizing visual masterpiece, which might be viewed as a higher-definition, modernized sequel to its older brother. It was first released a year ago at the Toronto Film Festival, but has just been released more broadly this summer. The opening at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on Friday, September 21 will mark its Florida premiere.
The film's first scenes capture adolescent Asian dancers in colorful and meticulously-painted traditional makeup. The camera follows their minute and cartoonishly precise hand and facial movements with stunning clarity that makes our typical worldview seem like it comes through a cataract haze. The camera then swoops in on a Hawaiian volcano violently spewing spurts of neon lava and black smoke and ash, smugly leaving the viewer to wonder how the hell they were able to film the scene. Much later, shots of miners, their shoulders flecked with scars and welts, struggle to lift bins of caustic yellow sulfur on a craggy hilltop in Indonesia, inspiring similar questions about how filming was achieved.
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A series of nature scenes, as pretty as they are, start to feel like the most overblown screensaver ever created, set to a background of soothing but somewhat generic world music by ambient composer Michael Stearns. But soon the human element is reinserted, and the film resumes its intrigue. We're hovering over the various stages of food production on a massive scale, from the factory and the slaughterhouse to a Sam's Club-type store, where droves of people purchase apples vacuum-packed in Styrofoam and plastic, plus mounds of other over-packaged sundries. The next logical stop is the Philippine landfill, where children and adults alike pick through hills of rotting debris in search of salvageable and salable scraps. The series sends a jaw-dropping message about sustainability and begs the question, "How long can we sustain this?"
The Sanskrit word samsara is translated to mean the cycle of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all life is subject, and this filmic meditation certainly covers all of that ground in a quilt of breathtaking video art. As Roger Ebert put it, "if this planet someday becomes barren and lifeless, [this film] could show visitors what was here." If you are human and living on this planet today, Samsara is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. The subjects are certainly interesting in themselves, but it's the high quality filmic portraiture that really puts the film in its own league; waiting to watch it on the small screen at home would be a mistake.