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Review: Samsara

A long, long time ago, in a century not so far away, a filmmaker named Godfrey Reggio stunned movie audiences in art houses around the world with his film Koyaanisqatsi. Hard to say, harder to spell, it was an unusual documentary in that it had no narration and an ecological theme. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi Indian term for “life out of balance.” It was a masterfully edited collage of stunning imagery, some in real time, some not so real, all accompanied by a mesmerising score by Philip Glass. The film made Glass a household name…well, depending on your household… and played for lengthy runs in major cities. Koyaanisqatsi also spawned two sequels, neither of which caught on like the original.  It also inspired another filmmaker, Ron Fricke, to create to similar works titled Baraka and Chronos.  Fricke expanded the realm of his visual reach by filming in 70mm to make the look of the film even more stunning.

So here we are in the twenty-first century and Ron Fricke has completed his third film, Samsara, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “the ever turning wheel of life.”  Fricke and his producer Mark Magidson spent five years in twenty-five countries creating this epic that looks stunning. Once again shot in 70mm, and the first film to do so since Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version of Hamlet, the format does justice to the elaborately staged vignettes using mostly vivid colors and choreography to enhance the experience. The irony is that 70mm projection is, for the most part, obsolete, having been replaced by the new wave of digital projection. There’s no way that you or I can see Samsara in 70mm as it was filmed. At least we can be consoled by the fact that any 35mm print or digital version made from the original will look gorgeous on any screen.

It also has a couple of other problems. First, the visuals seem to include more disturbing scenes than the others. Those are in jarring juxtaposition to the mastery of some of the others that will likely have you wanting to cheer in your seat. But I guess the point is that not everything in life is beautiful.

The score by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci uses more varied styles than some of the others, but still lacks the magnetic appeal of Philip Glass’s work for Koyaanisqatsi. And even though it’s only by twelve minutes, Samsara is that much longer than the other films mentioned, and feels it.

Those nit-picks aside, you will likely find Samsara to be an experience similar to sitting in a moving art museum, as the scenes pass in front of you instead of you walking through an exhibit.

The PG-13 rated Samsara is a presentation of Cincinnati World Cinema in Covington’s Carnegie Arts Center. There are two showings… Tuesday, November 13th and Wednesday, November 14th at 7:00 pm. You may avail yourself of a cash bar and happy hour prior to the film’s showing.

Leading the post-film discussion each night is Sara Mahle Drabik, a filmmaker, educator, and producer-director at Northern Kentucky University.