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 Sept. 2, 2015
"The Room" is a not bad movie. Bad movies are nothing special to Hollywood; one comes out pretty much every weekend. No, "The Room" is more like an unholy miracle of awful filmmaking, a movie that fails so incredibly hard it becomes an almighty success in the process. The new cult classic is coming to the Oriental Theatre this weekend, so we asked its creator Tommy Wiseau a few questions. And no, not "So anyway, how's your sex life?"
Published Aug. 31, 2015
The former Goldmann's Department Store is in the process of becoming the new home to the Gerald L. Ignace Indian Health Center. As a part of the renovation process, however, its iconic sign was taken down. After spending some time for sale in the construction lot, the popular Milwaukee and Mitchell Street landmark has found a new home. But, not in Milwaukee.
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Growing up, the Bay View-based toy maker Peggy Brown has plenty of memories of the classic board game Operation - and her family didn't even own it. Decades later, Brown - along with her friend and fellow toy maker Tim Walsh - are trying to give something back to the man whose legendarily buzz-worthy game gave them so many fun times and fond memories over the years with the documentary "Buzz Heard 'Round the World."
Published Aug. 27, 2015
Considering its reputation as Milwaukee's haunted bar, Shaker's Cigar Bar, located at 422 S. 2nd St., certainly knows a thing or two about old stories coming to life. After giving plenty of historical tours through the years and guiding eager guests to some of the city's ghosts, bar owner Bob Weiss and marketing director Amanda Morden are hoping they've found a new way to resurrect some of Milwaukee's old tales of yore: Hangman Radio.
Published Aug. 26, 2015
Now, with their Internet comedy series "Shangri-L.A.," Milwaukee-grown filmmakers Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer ("Billy Club," "Pester") are the latest to go in search of the worldly utopia. Well, kind of, as the search for dreams brings them to the very real city of Los Angeles - and to Kickstarter to help finish the 11 episode production.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
Yes, the Packers will probably be just fine without Jordy Nelson, who's done for the year with a significant right knee injury. But sometimes, you just need to grieve ... with a collection of Dubsmashes from Olivia Munn and Aaron Rodgers from before the injury that eerily fit this time of great sadness.
Published Aug. 23, 2015
If you're planning on riffing off of one of Hollywood's greatest director's greatest movies, you better know what you're doing. Luckily, the man behind "Phoenix" is the extremely talented German director Christian Petzold, who smartly takes a touch of Hitchcock and twists it into an impressive project all of his own, a brilliantly crafted modern post-war noir carefully cloaked in mystery that slowly but satisfyingly burns to a quiet fireworks display of a finale.
Published Aug. 22, 2015
The jazzy retro style of Guy Ritchie's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." is slinky fun, but enjoy it while you can because, like a toddler, if you take your eyes off it for a second to grab your drink or glance at your watch or merely blink, it is gone, a whooshing little breeze where it once used to be on screen and in your mind. The projector might as well be one of those neuralizers from "Men in Black."
Published Aug. 19, 2015
Dieter Sturm may not be a household name, but for about 30 years, his work has been all over some of your favorite Hollywood movies. Yes, fitting for a Wisconsinite, Sturm's business is snow, and when a Hollywood production needs to call in anything from a flurry to a blizzard, Sturm and his Lake Geneva-based company Sturm Special Effects bring the storm.
Published Aug. 18, 2015
The first time Indianapolis native and "Big Lebowski" superfan Tom Esterline, Jr. saw the 1998 Coen Brothers cult classic, well, he fell asleep. But then he watched it again. And again. And again and again and so on until he became a superfan - an Achiever - decked in his finest Pendleton sweater and attending as many Lebowski Fests as possible - the next one located right here in Milwaukee this weekend at Cathedral Square Park.