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.
Even when it's not tackling direct matters of the spirit, the imagery comes at us with the force of scripture. One moment we're looking at the mysterious human-head sculptures on Turkey's Mount Nemrut; next we see the faces of a family of American gun nuts. (We may wonder: whose face seems more immobile?) Meanwhile, shots of post-Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans and those of a busy, terrifyingly regimented poultry factory have a chaotic sameness to them — as if they're just flipsides of the same coin of human folly. This is a god's-eye view of the world, even when it's not about gods per se.
Samsara is a staggeringly beautiful film, and it stays with you. The imagery, shot on Super 65mm, is as haunting as that of his previous work, but Fricke gives it a sharper edge. Granted, it's hard to shoot a guy getting buried in a coffin shaped like a gun and not seem like you're making an argument of some sort. But Fricke seems to want to push things further. At one point the cascading documentary imagery stops, and we get what appears to be a "scripted" scene: a man in a corporate office who covers himself in face paint and runs wild, giving in to his most animal impulses. (It feels like performance art of some sort, though, so it may well be documentary.)
The music also feels more present and less ethereal than the lush, New Age-y environments of Baraka (though none of it measures up to Glass' work on the Qatsi trilogy — not that it's necessarily trying). That's understandable. Fricke knows it's easy for a film like this to get knocked as screen-saver cinema, meant to help willing acolytes drift off into dreamlike reveries. With the gorgeous, otherworldly Samsara, however, he's done something altogether more dangerous. He lulls you, but not into daydreams —nightmares.