Three young girls in elaborate golden headdresses and intricate make-up dance in unison, staring wide eyed at the camera, with eerily fixed grins and movements of the head reminiscent of stringed puppets. Smoke billows gracefully from an erupting volcano, the white plumes unfolding hypnotically, outward into the blue sky. The face of a long-dead man lies on a floor as if he is asleep. His features are perfectly preserved in death, every line and blemish, his expression frozen in petrified blackness. His skin resembles burnt paper, and seems so fragile even the contours of his cheek yield and slide as he rests his head on the stone. These three images are the first in a collage of footage shot on stunning 70mm film, made over the course of five years and across the landscapes of more countries than I can count. This is Samsara, the most haunting, baffling, and at times, darkly comic cinema experience you'll have this year. It's also the most staggeringly beautiful film you're likely to see in your life. Without exaggeration, Samsara is like nothing you have ever seen.
Over the last two weeks I've seen Brave: masterfully animated, engaging and overall delightful, Lawless: great performances, thrilling and shocking violence, muddled narrative - as well a wide variety of films on DVD. All of these would have been far easier and more straightforward to review (not to mention having wider appeal) than Samsara, a film that is in many ways diminished by attempting to make sense out of it in something as limiting as a review. But at the same time, I feel compelled to write about it, simply because I want to encourage every single person that I possibly can to see this while they can. Directed and photographed by Ron Fricke, Samsara comprises a collage of images taken from around the globe, with no dialogue, no characters and no story. At almost two hours long it is one of the most compelling, enthralling and dramatic films to come out this year. Aside from anything else, the photography is unquestionably the best I've ever seen, and should be experienced on the biggest screen possible. Colours are vivid and striking, almost vibrating with intensity. Tricks with time lapsing make constellations swirl at night, cars in LA become ribbons of light, and pilgrims at Mecca resemble a human whirlpool swimming impossibly around the motionless black cuboid Kaaba. Crucially, the photoplay, while magnificent in its own right, is far beyond empty spectacle. Though it lacks anything resembling a story, the imagery in Samsara weaves a narrative of thematic resonances, irony and at times, pitch black humour. In one sequence, a man in Africa is buried in a coffin in the shape of a gun, while in North America a family, including the teenage daugther, wield their collection of firearms. The daughter's, of course, is electric pink to match her T-shirt.
If all this seems terribly arty and a mite pretentious, don't be put off: despite the suggestion of heavy, intellectualised discourse and navel-gazing waffle, Samsara is a surprisingly accessible film, forever offering up ideas but never demanding that you take them. It's possible, if not advisable, to just sit back and enjoy the lavish photography on offer, and indeed it's a wonderful pleasure just to let Samsara's visual splendour wash over you. The film is brimming with evocative footage: bombed out classrooms, cathedrals, slaughterhouses and human cadavers, shots of gargantuan factories full of identically clad workers. But central to Samsara's premise is there is no comment, only observation. The camera records what is happening, but rarely, if ever, overtly says what it is, or what it means. Rather, meaning comes from the way I, you, the audience, discover the connectedness of the sequences. For example, footage of a bizzare machine that (there's no better way of putting it) hoovers up live chickens is juxtaposed with hundreds of soldiers marching in perfect unison. The film doesn't state this connection overtly, though: it is through my own personal views, prejudices and preconceptions that draw these particular images together. Others may pick up on the copious religious imagery, the natural landscapes or the vast, Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers of Dubai. If Samsara has any concrete 'message', it's to make what you will of what you are seeing: the camera observes, leaving you free to comment. Documentaries sometimes fall in to the trap of didactics and easy platitudes, but Samsara is a film that never offers answers, and instead presents us with a vision of beauty that is unique, often sublime and always breathtaking. One last time: Do Not Miss This Film.