by Bilge Ebiri
Ron Fricke gained fame as Godfrey Reggio's cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi, the seminal 1982 documentary that stitched together a series of wordless, loosely connected, rapturous images that sought to depict the chaotic nature of modern life (set, of course, to Philip Glass' now legendary score). In 1992, Fricke released his own film as a director, Baraka, a Reggio-esque meditation on different aspects of spiritual experience around the world. It took Koyaanisqatsi's kaleidoscopic approach, yet gave it a somewhat more theme-park-like spin.
I don't mean that as a knock. Where Reggio's film (not to mention its subsequent sequels) was troubling, even occasionally jagged, Baraka was beautiful, polished. Reggio was an essayist, while Fricke was a poet. With his latest, Samsara, Fricke seems to have adopted some of his mentor's sensibility. This time, the mesmeric stream of exotic imagery seems more pointed. The film has a broad purview — it's ostensibly about the impermanent, ever-turning, constantly renewing nature of life — but it dares to get specific at times, or at least as specific as a film like this can be.
If in Baraka Fricke looked at the search for spiritual identity as an essential element of humanity, here he suggests that violence and aggression are no less organic, inseparable from the fact of being alive. That's not to say spirituality isn't here as well. The film is framed by shots of an elaborate sand mandala being prepared and, as is traditional, being destroyed. (Filmmakers seem to like the mandala symbolism; both Martin Scorsese in Kundun and Bernardo Bertolucci in Little Buddha previously used this conceit.) Along the way it treats us to majestic images of picturesque Buddhist monasteries and massed throngs of Muslim believers.