MPI // 2011 // 102 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 4th, 2013
"A guided meditation on the current of interconnection that runs through all of our lives."
Samsara is a word for flow. In a number of religions, it is used to refer to the flow of reincarnation: birth, death, rebirth. This perpetual (though not, hopefully, endless) cycle has numerous potent associations, which partly explains its presence in so many religions. It's an appropriate title, then, for Ron Fricke's 2011 cinematic meditation Samsara. A kind of follow-up to his 1992 Baraka, Samsara is another wordless meditation on the beauty of the world. It's a visual feast with images from all over the world, though the program's length and some of its imagery might turn viewers off.
Samsara fits into the genre of films inaugurated by Koyaanisqatsi (which Fricke worked on as a writer or "concept" artist). These films (which include Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi) and Fricke's Baraka combine music and image in a way that conveys ideas without relying on a narrative. There is no voiceover, no text to help us get a grasp on what Fricke is aiming for. Instead, we get 102 minutes of footage shot in twenty-five countries around the globe. The overall message seems to be that the world is a beautiful and (sometimes) terrible place. There's more of a focus on humans in Samsara than in some similar documentaries, so we see choreographed prisoners and the film is bookended with scenes of a mandala being painted with sand.
Samsara is a beautiful collection of imagery. Every cut from one image to another is an almost gasp-inducing encounter with another well-framed shot of the world, with or without people. Taken together, Samsara is a kind of meditative travelogue through a conceptual tour of the world and how people fit into it. There are only so many words that can describe Samsara -- hypnotic, meditative -- but none quite capture the best moments of the film as viewers are taken from scene to scene and the overall effect builds to a feeling of wonder at the world.
There was one thing that Samsara (Blu-ray) had to get right, and that's the transfer. The film was shot entirely on 70mm and then scanned at 8K resolution to yield this 2.39:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. It's essentially perfect. This is a reference demo, the kind of disc you can throw on to sway people to invest in Blu-ray. It's that good. Detail is razor sharp throughout, colors are bright and bold, and black levels are appropriate deep and consistent. Grain is well-handled, and there are no significant digital artifacts to speak of. The film uses audio effectively as well, but I was not expecting this knockout DTS-HD 7.1 track. I guess they figured if you're going to make a demo-worthy looking film, the audio should match. Clarity is impressive, and every instrument in the score from the highest flutes to the lowest bass sounds distinct and well placed in the soundfield. Dynamic range is impressive, and there's a roominess to the sound that speaks of its uncompressed origins.
The film's main extra is a 49-minute making-of that's broken down into six pieces that cover everything from the film's genesis to the score and the challenges of shooting in 70mm. It's not the most in-depth feature ever, but it hits the highlights of the production. Some fans might be disappointed that more time isn't spent (in a commentary or something similar) explaining the images or the intent behind the film. Trailers are also included.
Samsara is a beautiful film, except, of course, when it's not. Exploring the ways that humans interact with the world, the filmmakers occasionally encounter the darker elements of our world, capturing the terror that goes along with the breathtaking beauty of the natural world. The film earns its PG-13 rating for "disturbing and sexual images" by showing us (for instance) a machine that kills and plucks chickens. It's not always clear what these kinds of shots are accomplishing (maybe it's "Consumerism is bad!" or "Look at how terrible humanity is compared to nature's beauty!"), but viewers might be surprised by some of the more depressing imagery in the film.
Samsara is an interesting, though flawed, attempt at expanding the documentary form with beautiful and disturbing imagery. Though the film's message could be clearer, it's obvious that this film is a product of passion and a deep sympathy with humanity. It's also a reference-quality Blu-ray release. Anyone looking to show off their home theater system can pop this disc in with confidence. It's also worth at least a rental for fans of nature imagery (though its more disturbing imagery means prospective viewers should take the PG-13 rating seriously).
Beautiful, and not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated