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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 08.27.12] documentary



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When a movie is working, be it making you laugh or cry, scaring or informing, it draws you under a spell that often isn't broken until the lights come up. Sometimes the magic takes time to permeate and though the initial effects are immediate (a laugh or tears), the power of it doesn't manifest until long after the credits roll. Some movies need that time to settle in and work their magic but occasionally you find something that is profound from the opening sequence, a movie that snags you with an image, a sound or a combination of the two and doesn't let go; not when the lights go up, not a few days later and not ever.


Samsara is one such movie.

The third in a collaboration between director Ron Fricke, producer Mark Magidson and composer Michael Stearns, it is also the best of their three films. Hard to imagine considering that with each movie the trio have been topping themselves with unparalleled images and sounds and when you think they can't get any better, they outdo themselves again. Part of the success stems from the fact that they're experts at these projects, like an elite athlete riding a Tour de France. They know the difficulties but have the experience and determination to get it done, improving with each outing, but by their own admission, part of it is also luck (or perhaps it's the aligning of the stars). Either way, it's spectacular filmmaking that grabs hold on the opening note and doesn't let go.

Sanskrit for birth, death and rebirth, Samsara's wordless narrative explores the cycle of life. It begins and ends with an intricate sand painting and in between travels the world, twenty five countries in all, capturing both the beauty and ugliness of life. From the barrios of Brazil to the garbage pickers of the Philippines, the excess of the world's only seven star hotel to images of consumer culture obsessed with everything from sex dolls to food, Samsara captures it all. Fricke and Magidson find beauty in even the most deplorable conditions and though they tell a story through their editing, the images speak louder than any script could and surprisingly, there's more good than bad.

There's a strange beauty to the Chinese factories where workers do everything from build irons to cut meat and though there's a gruesomeness to the mass harvesting and butchering of animals, there's also a clear moment of realization that this is part of the circle of life. We have to survive and since most of us can't kill a pig, someone needs to do it for us. Perhaps this won't always be the reality of the world but it's the reality of today.

Some of the images are sad, some are gleefully joyous while others are so breathtaking in their beauty that they literally take your breath away. Each one tells its own small story, each image conveying more in a few minutes than some films manage in their entire running times and when it's all over Samsara leaves a mixture of emotions in its wake, a sense of serenity with the universe, a feeling of catharsis and an urge to travel, to know and experience some of these places first hand.

Samsara begs to be seen and heard on the largest possible screen. Captured on 70mm and converted to 4K for the best possible image, the movie's glorious jaw dropping (I sat in awed shock for most of the movie's running time) cinematography is the kind of thing that one wants to be enveloped in and though I don't doubt it will play wonderfully on Blu-ray, this is a cinematic experience that really needs to be seen as the filmmakers intended: huge.

I had the opportunity to see this at Seattle's Cinerama with Ron Fricke, Mark Magidson and Michael Stearns in attendance. The trio participated in a lengthy post movie Q&A in which they, in not so many words, promised another entry into their loose franchise. Hopefully it won't be another 19 year wait.

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