I walked into "Samsara" prepared to be skeptical. I knew it was going to be beautiful, but I also knew there was no concrete story, and in my opinion, having all visuals and no story or characters is giving me half the movie-going experience. As a result, I sat down in my theater chair like Bill Maher in a church pew.
Two hours later, I walked out of the theater a believer, baptized in the power and immense beauty of 70mm film.
Calling "Samsara" a movie feels like selling it short. It's a cinematic experience indeed – one that demands to be seen on the big screen for maximum effect – but above that, it's a cultural and spiritual experience that invites you to a new perspective of the world, as well as yourself. In fact, to review it seems wrong, like reviewing a prayer.
Much like the creators' previous film, 1992's "Baraka," there is no real story or character arcs in "Samsara." In fact, I don't recall a single line of dialogue. Instead, the film is comprised of small visual vignettes from locations across the globe. Some of them are breathtakingly gorgeous, such as the shots of ancient ruins that go so far into the distance that it almost looks like a matte painting. Others are freakishly haunting, like a sequence in which a well-dressed business man begins throwing a fit at his desk, rubbing clay and dust onto his face, eventually appearing like the Pale Man from "Pan's Labyrinth."
"Samsara"'s focus is humanity, which is another way of saying that the film has no focus at all. Some of the sequences demonstrate the progress of humanity, moving toward the surreal images that comprise modernized society – most memorably a sequence involving unnervingly real robot people. One chapter demonstrates the role of guns throughout the world; another shows the juxtaposition of beautiful skyrise buildings next to extreme poverty. Sometimes the connection between segments is clear, but other times there seems to be none whatsoever.
The movie's title means "cyclic existence" in Sanskrit, a theme that provides the very loose organization for the images. However, it's best not to watch director Ron Fricke's film looking for these ideas or concepts, or a solid storyline, no matter how abstract. "Samsara" is more like a Rorschach test for the soul, presenting jaw-dropping images of humanity and society, and inviting the audience to analyze them for personal meaning.
Of course, you could also just see "Samsara" for the pretty pictures, and I wouldn't blame you for a second. The big selling point of the film is that it was filmed entirely on 70mm, a higher-definition film stock than the usual 35mm. Many big-budget movies, like "The Dark Knight Rises," are beginning to incorporate 70mm, most commonly for IMAX sequences.
Admittedly, I wasn't entirely convinced of the format when I saw "The Dark Knight Rises" IMAX-footage this past summer. However, "Samsara" shows that, when used right, it can bring wonder back to the big screen. The colors are unbelievably vivid, and each texture can be seen with startling clarity.
A scene involving a band of monks meticulously crafting an eye-poppingly bright image out of different colored sand grains is pretty much guaranteed to inspire awe (its inevitable fate is sure to draw an amusing reaction as well). Another late sequence at the Kaaba in Mecca is mesmerizing, turning a massive crowd of individuals into a spellbinding, moving whole. I wouldn't dare guess how a god sees the world, but it's probably similar to "Samsara."
The music, composed by the trio of Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci, provides the perfect accompaniment to Fricke's lavish imagery. Its dreamlike mixture of ethereal sounds, tribal instruments, chants, propulsive drumbeats and soul stirring singing puts the viewer even further into its trance.
I know in this age of cell phones, social media and crazy home theater setups that this might seem like radical advice, but "Samsara" is a film that begs and demands to be seen in the theater. It needs to be on a big screen to capture the grand scope and detail of its brilliant visuals.
Most importantly, though, it needs to be watched like a meditation, removed from the distractions of everyday life and allowing the hypnotic beauty of Fricke's images to sweep over. For 102 minutes, it'll send your soul soaring across the globe and when it comes back, you might just see the world with new eyes.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Dec. 11, 2013
OnMilwaukee caught up with Doomtree's Aaron Mader, more commonly known as Lazerbeak, to talk about the documentary "Team the Best Team," the struggles of being on the road and how Wisconsin plays a part in the collective's creative process.
Published Dec. 10, 2013
Miller Lite announced the launch of the new Original Lite Can, a replica of the 1975 can that helped start the light beer craze (for better or for worse).
Published Dec. 10, 2013
When most of us are flipping through local radio stations, we're merely hoping to find a good station with a good run of catchy songs to help make the ride through traffic a bit more tolerable. When Sean Behling was flipping through stations back in 2005 when he moved to Milwaukee, he happened to find the inspiration for a whole album. The result was "Unwound," the recently released 43-track album of IDM and big band-infused instrumental hip-hop from Flight Mechanics, the duo of Behling (Seakn) and Paul Duquesnoy (Boost).
Published Dec. 6, 2013
For about its first hour, I was fairly on board the new Rust Belt drama "Out of the Furnace." But then I realized where the movie was going. The path - one of cliché and mildly ridiculous revenge thriller pulp - became clear and obvious, and I couldn't have wanted it to stop more. But it didn't. Now, I'm left with a movie that's by no means bad but disappointing, a passable waste of exceptional potential.
Published Dec. 4, 2013
For the second year in a row, the crew down at The Second City in Chicago is coming up to Milwaukee for the holidays to present a holiday comedy special, this time called "The Second City's Nut-Cracking Holiday Revue." OnMilwaukee caught up with one of the stars, Megan Hovde, to ask about the holiday revue, being a part of The Second City and why "The Golden Girls" is one of her comedy icons.
Published Dec. 3, 2013
Stars Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage are taking their hit show, "Mythbusters," on the road, and tomorrow night, their "Behind the Myths" tour arrives at the Milwaukee Theater. OnMilwaukee got a chance to talk to Hyneman and ask him about the show's most memorable myths.
Published Dec. 2, 2013
The sun carries almost no heat or warmth. A sharp face-tingling chill greets you as turn every corner on the street. There's not even any wonderful white snow on the ground to make the weather seem any more pleasant. Nope, it's just cold. It's hard to think of a better, more fitting time for Sheryl Crow, the singer-songwriter behind warm, summery hits like "Soak Up the Sun" and "All I Wanna Do," to come to town.
Published Nov. 29, 2013
For those with that built-in affection for the film and the sweet, innocent days of times long gone past, "White Christmas" might be perfect. For me, though, the show - which opened Tuesday night at the Marcus Center - was a whole lot of holly-drenched hokum, as fresh as a Christmas Day snow in the dregs of March.
Published Nov. 28, 2013
"Philomena" may be modest, but that modesty is surprisingly striking and rewarding. After my original screening, I found myself having a hard time putting the movie down in my head. I had to see it a second time, and that second look confirmed my lingering suspicions: It's a damn fine movie.
Published Nov. 27, 2013
Most of the pre-movie Disney or Pixar shorts serve as a nice, tasty appetizer before the main course, but "Get a Horse!" - Mickey Mouse's first theatrical animated short since 1995's nightmare-inducing, childhood-ruining "Runaway Brain" - seems perfect and almost integral for "Frozen." It delightfully sets the stage for what the feature presentation is about to do: take Disney's old traditions and bring them to fresh, blissful new life.