Samsara

Fri, Aug 31, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Ron Fricke 12A cert, limited release, 102 min

When Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi emerged in 1982, few punters knew quite what to make of it. A series of beautifully filmed, epic images scored with tunes by Philip Glass, the film looked like an experimental piece, but, thanks to help from Francis Ford Coppola, it opened in mainstream cinemas. Koyaanisqatsi helped define a form.

In 1992, Ron Fricke, Reggio’s cinematographer, continued the good work with the stunning Baraka, and he now returns to the fray with a film that dazzles the eye just as much as its predecessors. The title derives from a Buddhist word meaning “wheel of existence” and, if you were inclined to be cynical, you could accuse the film of indulging in post-hippie pop-transcendentalism. After all, the non-narrative does juxtapose images of factory chickens being processed with shots of unspoilt canyons and gyrating Asian dancers.

Such charges are surely unfair. Fricke’s aim is merely to drag all human experience into his film (did I really say “merely”?). The hypnotically ugly sequences are as essential to that comprehensive vision as are the endless tableaux of exhaustingly implausible beauty.

Arranged as a sort of audio-visual symphony, the film proudly revels in 20th-century aesthetics. Fricke shot Samsara on 70mm film (the stuff that comes in canisters) and, though it will look pleasant on a laptop or TV, the movie demands to be viewed on the biggest screen your city can boast. The elegant, beautifully modulated soundtrack – combining original music by Lisa Gerrard with previously released tunes by the likes of Keith Jarrett – deserves to boom from coffin-sized speakers.

Once plonked before this version of the film, most sane people will find themselves wondering how so many astonishing vistas have remained so curiously underexploited. Fricke’s great gift is his talent for framing images in such a coolly precise fashion that some part of the nasty 21st-century brain suspects digital retouching. Holy men create perfect images from coloured powder; dancers move in rigid, robotic harmony; enormous temples squat on verdant planes: hyper-reality constantly hands over to unreality. But he and his team deserve extra credit simply for locating these peculiar structures, landscapes and people.

Who knew the world still concealed so much eccentric loveliness?