Sunday, September 9, 2012

Samsara [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Samsara (directed and cowritten by Ron Fricke along with Mark Madigson) is a sweeping guided meditation made in the same style which characterized their two previous collaborations, Baraka [1992] and Chronos [1985].  Each film was organized around a broad world-religious theme: Chronos, of course, comes from the Greek word for Time,  Baraka comes from the the Arabic/Semitic word for "Blessing," and Samsara from the Sanskrit word for "Continuous Flow" or "Impermanence" and in the Buddhist conception (when one stands opposed to it) the fundamental cause of all Suffering. 

Just as in the previous two films, there is no dialogue in the film, just 90 minutes of sweeping land, city and indoorscapes (in the case of Samsara taken over the course of 5 years and across some 25 countries) all taken with 70 mm film and HD digital video with minimal but intentionally included/added background music and sound.  Like its two predecessors, much of Samsara is filmed using time-lapse photography allowing viewers to experience familiar events from an unfamiliar (arguably "God's-eye" or perhaps in Eastern religious language "Kharmic") perspective.

The overall effect of the film simultaneously awe-inspiring and ego-deflating:

The film begins with a sequence performed by a troupe of traditional dancers from East Asia, Malaysia I believe, that is so intricate and precise that it becomes hard to tell whether it's being performed people, by life-sized traditionally clad (and somehow manipulated) dolls, or at least by people wearing masks.  The film ends with another dance, this time by an Indian troupe, which though performed by young women nonetheless is so intricate and sublime that in its hand movements it transports the viewer arguably into the realm of the Divine. 

The initial dance sequence is followed by a scene from nature showing a lava stream from an active volcano heading inexorably toward an ever explosive encounter with the sea, reminding us that the Earth itself is not static.

Afterwards, a group of Tibetan monks are shown painstakingly constructing a marvelously intricate sand drawing made of different colors of sand.  Near the end of the film, having completed the intricate sand drawing and having had time to contemplate its serene beauty for a short while, the same monks proceed to destroy it by wiping the drawing clean with calm sweeps of their hands, the same hands with which they had made it.  Adjoining the two scenes of the monks first constructing and the destroying their intricate sand drawing are two scenes capturing sand blowing across the trackless dunes of the Gobi Desert which lies north of Tibet.

However after this initial reflection on nature coming from the Eastern Religions of Buddhism and Hinduism, much of the middle part of the film shows a darker side to this cycle of constant flux and change:

Factory workers dressed in orange and yellow jump-suits arriving at a factory somewhere in East Asia are shown through time-lapse photography to look like insects arriving "home" at their hive.  Then the motions of these individual workers on the factory lines, experienced again through time-lapse photography, is shown to be all but indistinguishable from the motions of commonly associated with assembly-line robots.

The full product cycle of our consumer product driven life-style is presented from those lines of brightly colored uniformed factory workers busily assembling the products that we would one day use, to discarded products from automobiles to computers being both picked apart (by other sets of power-tool wielding "busy bee" factory workers) or otherwise being mechanically crushed and shredded.

We are presented with the eminently hygienic and "clean" but mechanically-driven modern food cycle. Turkeys are shown being fed by spinning brush wielding machines to the orifices of giant vacuum driven clear plastic pipes that "suck" the turkeys out of their giant holding pens to other parts of the "plant," and presumably eventually to their butchers. Cows, pigs and chickens are shown being moved/prodded around by machines in similar ways. (Honestly I could not help but think of the facilities being shown as being basically a "kinder, gentler," more "hygienic" Auschwitz for animals).

At the other end of the food cycle we were shown a scene a large number of poor Filipino adults and children (as well as birds ...) picking through the scraps of recently dumped garbage arriving at a gigantic dump presumably outside of Manila by large (human-driven, mechanical) dump trucks.  

A sequence continuing this "descent into Hell" is presented, showing the both the growing (?) and traditional (?) co-modification of sex in the East from a scene showing a factory making increasingly life-like anthropomorphical sex dolls, to smiling living bikini clad dancers at an upscale sex club wearing numbered tags looped around their g-strings (presumably to allow prospective clients the ease of "ordering them by number") to finally showing a traditionally made-up/clad Japanese geisha girl walking, alone, either to or from work one evening.

A final sequence follows the mechanical production of guns and bullets and the casualties resulting from them.

But it is not all dark.  Away from the hustle and bustle of life where man and machine seem to intersect and meld into one, are those Tibetan monks serenely first making and serenely destroying those sand pictures that they make.

Also present are stunning scenes of the multitudes of pilgrims processing around in tight circle around the Qaaba rock in Mecca.  When seen again through time-lapse photography the meandering procession around the Qaaba begins to look "alive" and indeed like a churning whirlpool.

Finally, near the end of this film on flux and change, there's a powerful shot of the inside of Saint Peter's Basilica, where the only movement shown is that of the rays of sunlight passing through the windows and the giant inscribed name PETRVS stands utterly, indeed defiantly, fixed on the giant stone/marble seemingly immovable vaulted ceiling of the Basilica built over St. Peter's tomb.  As perhaps a counter point, near the close the film is also a shot of the venerable Pyramids of Giza taken from the rooftop of a nearby recently constructed high rise tenement building representing the urban sprawl that is slowly encroaching on the site of the Pyramids all the way from Cairo. Even the majesty/awesomeness of the Egyptian Pyramids stand soon to marginalized ...

So religion is portrayed as a solace and a means of coping with the inexorable forces of change and the suffering that it causes, but a difference is also drawn between the Eastern and Western religions.  In the Eastern religions, especially in Buddhism, NOTHING is considered permanent.  In the West, be it in Islam, in Christianity (and here primarily in Catholic Christianity) and in some strands of Judaism (where either Jerusalem or the Torah are seen as immovable/constant), SOMETHING, generally ONE thing is believed to remain immovable against the otherwise overwhelming currents of change even as all the Western faiths freely admit that _most things_ are "vanity" (Eccl 1:2) and "There is a time for all things" (Eccl 3:1).

But then this _one_ (and arguably rather _small_) difference between the East and the West completes then this multifacted reflection on the concept of Samsara -- Eternal Flux and the Suffering that it causes. And the result is truly one heck of a thought provoking film!  My hat off to Ron Fricke and Mark Madigson, the makers of this film, great, great job!

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