To fully comprehend the rapturous new film from the Bay Area-based team of director-cinematographer Ron Fricke and producer Mark Magdison, first, consider the audacity of its production: Five years, 25 countries, no story per se. That's right: Samsara, billed as a continuation of Fricke and Magidson's 1992 film Baraka, is a non-narrative enterprise without actors or dialogue, in which, as Magidson puts it, "image is the main character."
In this context, "image" is abundantly and importantly plural. For Samsara, Fricke and Magdison have assembled a vivid, vast montage. They invite us to sample the earthly textures of factories, disaster zones, ancient ruins, and several variously interpretable world wonders. They introduce us to human multitudes: pilgrims in Mecca, dancers in China, prisoners in the Philippines, and even a few freaky androids in Japan. Driven forward by musical accompaniment from Marcello De Francisci, Lisa Gerrard, and Michael Stearns, they survey moving waters, molten explosions and time-lapse swirls of stars and headlights.
The images just keep coming, as befits the film's title, a sanskrit word meaning "continuous flow," or "ever turning wheel of life." In the Buddhist view, that wheel spins toward Nirvana but can take a while to get there. What matters, we tell ourselves, is the journey -- that cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. In Samsara, this pertains to a demonstrably multifaceted relationship between the Earth and its inhabitants.
Possibly it also pertains to cinema itself. Shot on 70-millimeter film, meant for projection in a theater, this is documentary as assertion of spectacle. Among the patterns it presents for possible recognition is a sharpening awareness that digital delivery systems and increasingly stratified market targeting have rendered the everyday moviegoing experience, that 20th-century relic, all but extinct. And yet the majesty of the medium -- still made of one image after another -- seems pure and potentially eternal.
Its makers rightly describe Samsara as a guided meditation. To less patient viewers, it'll seem like an abbreviated slideshow full of New Age nonsense. Yet in Fricke and Magdison's selective awe there is a kind of rigor. What sublime diligence it takes to lug a huge camera around the world for years at a time just to keep going with the perpetual flow.
Samsara opens Friday, September 7, 2012, at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, with filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magdison in person following the 7:15pm September 7 show at Embarcadero. For tickets and information, visit landmarktheatres.com.