November 16, 2012 -- It wasn't until I got to the credits of this film that I found out it was shot in Panavision super 70 and scanned at 8K. It was meant for a 4K presentation in theaters, that's about twice the resolution of your average movie theater's digital projection system. Obviously, this was meant for the big screen, and I watched it at home. I have a good home theater setup, but it's not as good as a good movie theater setup. This film looks great as I saw it. I can only wonder what it would look like in a movie theater that is properly equipped and set up to show this film.
There is no dialog at all in this film. There are no talking heads to tell you what all these wonderful images mean. There is no off-screen narration to lead you through this very diverse worldwide selection of scenes. As a viewer, you are cast adrift in a sea of visual wonder, some of which looks like it was filmed on another planet. Right in the middle of it, there is a bit of performance art. A man (Olivier De Sagazan) sitting at a desk, begins to smear what looks like clay over his face, and then paints various faces on this clay. These images are disturbing.
Another collection of images, called “the food chain” is also disturbing. I'm glad I wasn't eating any meat when I saw that. At a military cemetery, we see a soldier who was badly burned, Staff Sargent Robert Henline of the U.S. Army. A geisha, Kikumaru, sheds a single tear in another scene. In one of the more touching scenes, a father with tattoos all over his body, Marcos Luna, tenderly kisses a baby he is holding in his massive arms.
The film starts off with a variety of religious architecture and art, a theme which the film returns to again near the end. We see a baby not yet born, and a beautiful child who has died. We see baptisms. We see a variety of coffins, including a coffin built to look like a giant gun, with a dead man inside, lowered into the ground.
We see amazing natural wonders, volcanos, waterfalls, rivers, and the great works of man, temples, cathedrals, the great pyramids, cities, skyscrapers. Religion is a key element in the film and Buddhism is prominently featured, monks, temples and Buddha statues. There are also scenes of thousands of Muslims praying outdoors, and a remarkable time-lapse image of Muslims at Mecca for the Hajj. Religious elements are often paired with scenes of nature.
But this film isn't all about scenic shots and religious architecture, it is also about people. We see people in assembly lines assembling electronic and consumer goods. One remarkable scene shows a large number of workers all dressed in yellow going to work in buildings that are also yellow. Part of the food chain section shows people doing butchering work, preparing fast food, eating fast food, and people shopping. A lot of these scenes use time lapse photography and are shot with special camera equipment.
One of the most remarkable scenes in the film shows a number of large religious temples, which I think was filmed in Thailand. This scene was shot from an aircraft. It shows the temples from afar, and up close, too. The cinematography in this film is amazing. This is very high quality work. It reminds of similar films, like the environmental film “Home” and, of course, the classics, “Koyaanisqatsi” and “Powaqqatsi.” Samsara, made by the team of Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson is said to be a continuation of the themes shown in “Baraka” (1992) also made by Fricke and Magidson. Like those films, “Samsara” has the same strengths, great cinematography and music, and the same weakness, a lack of cohesive structure. This is a problem in general with many non-narrative art forms.
The film does have broad general themes about the power of the natural world, volcanoes and the aftermath of a natural disaster, perhaps a commentary on the frailty of human life. The film also pointedly shows people holding guns, and it shows the manufacture of guns and bullets. Perhaps this is meant to show the disconnect between war and the sublime rituals and soaring architecture of religion.
Speaking of sublime, one of the most sublime sequences in the film is a performance piece by a line of dancers called the “Thousand Hands Goddess Dance” behind lead dancer Tai Lihua in China. At the other end of that spectrum is a group of prisoners dancing for exercise in Cebu Provincial Detention Center in the Philippines (prison dancers in this facility are best known for their performance of Michael Jackson's “Thriller”) featuring lead dancer Crisando Neire. This is followed by distinctly non-sublime images of the hard faces of the prison inmates. There are a number of portraits like this in the film. A lot of people staring straight into the camera, straight at you, the viewer.
This film features images shot over a five year period on five continents in 25 countries, including the United States, Brazil, Dubai, Indonesia, Africa, Japan, France, Denmark, Jordan, Israel, Italy, Mali, Myanmar, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Namibia and elsewhere. It features many amazing images of the familiar and unfamiliar scenic wonders and architectural marvels of the world. This film rates a B.
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