Still from Samsara by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson

Samsara, a Sanskrit word that means “world” or “cyclic existence,” is also a recently released documentary by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson. It’s a collection of mind-blowing, Planet Earth-style shots, but instead of taking on the natural world, the film’s directors chose to represent a topic that’s arguably even harder to pin down than the rarest of natural wonders: the human spirit. The final 100-minute-long movie is an incredible piece of work. It’s nothing if not inspiring, but its inspiring-ness contains a number of problematic representations of culture, art, creativity, and religion.

It’s gross, sure, and it constitutes some vague critique of consumption, but it’s as slickly aestheticized as the churches, which leads to some strange cognitive dissonance.

Fricke and Magidson’s documentary is built to be visually stunning. Shot in super-high-definition 70 millimeter film, the image on the movie screen is as immaculate as it’s currently possible to be. That crispness is used to show ruined temples, eerily staring Buddhist sculptures, and massive churches at the edge of the sea. Time-lapse shots show days, weeks, and months passing eternally — the scenes give the impression that the sights the viewers are treated to have been, and will be, in place forever, an impression heightened by the subjects’ religious significance.

These spiritual scenes are balanced out by depictions of humankind’s manufacturing prowess, with panning shots of huge factories where animals are raised and slaughtered, sex dolls manufactured, and electronics assembled. Following one such sequence is a shot a prototypical McDonald’s cafeteria, with several overweight customers shoveling down Big Macs and fries. It’s gross, sure, and it constitutes some vague critique of consumption, but it’s as slickly aestheticized as the churches, which leads to some strange cognitive dissonance.

The pairing of cultural artifacts and technology is reminiscent of the Qatsi series, a similarly wordless trilogy of filmic tone poems created by director Godfrey Reggio over the past several decades. Where the Qatsi films present subtle arguments about the conflict between humans, machines, and the natural world, Samsara is more confused about what it is and what it wants to be.

The movie spans cultures and ages, treading through Asia and the West without so much as a title card. This is one of the film’s principal problems — it entertains and awes without making any attempt at educating. There are no captions for the staggering pictures flashing on the screen before us, no locations or cities called out or cultures identified. The decision might be an attempt at spiritual universalism, pushing for the possibility of global cultural peace, but it comes off as raw inspiration without purpose or direction, akin to some of the less relevant TED Talks. Samsara is a monotony of significance, or if not significance, then the feeling or suggestion of significance. It’s like an art museum exhibition without labels or wall text, a wunderkammer of mystery objects.

In one scene, as beautiful as any of the rest, a group of Tibetan monks work laboriously to create a sand mandala as a circle of children watch on, the youngsters who will eventually become monks themselves. We watch as the single sand grains fall into place in blocks of color, forming abstract patterns and representations of deities. Later in the film, the scene returns, and the monks have finished the mandala. They put away their tools and start to wipe away their intricate design into a pile, returning order into chaos and something back into nothing. Unfortunately, that’s what viewers will be left with as well — a virtuoso performance without any lasting trace.

Samsara is open in theaters nationwide, as well as in the UK and Germany. 

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...