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Reviews by Dr. Frank Swietek   

Producer  Mark Magidson 
Director  Ron Fricke 
Writer  Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson 
Studio  Oscilloscope Pictures 
Review  Ron Fricke’s new film is, like his earlier “Baraka,” a wordless pictorial montage that makes one wonder what the credit saying that it was “written by” him and Mark Magidson means. (Perhaps it’s just a reference to the fact that they edited it.) But then the movie itself might leave you wondering what it means.

Certainly it’s a sometimes stunning visual experience, from a shot of a rumbling volcano near the start to an aerial one of the teaming pilgrims at Mecca near the close. In between there are innumerable sequences, usually speeded-up, of ant-like mobs of people, from convicts doing synchronized exercises in a courtyard to assembly-line workers in a huge Chinese factory. These are contrasted with images of chickens being herded for slaughter, cows being milked in similar assembly-line fashion, and piglets suckling. There are plenty of juxtapositions: images of affluent people shopping at malls or walking along neon-filled urban corridors, along with sequences showing the extreme poverty in South American ghettos and the dwellers there picking through garbage dumps (which comes shortly after a montage about obesity, one scene showing a morbidly fat person being prepped for surgery and three gargantuan folks scarfing down fast food).

There are also sequences focusing on guns (bullets being produced, handguns being assembled) that feature a shot of an apparent family showing off their weaponry and others of military parades, contrasted with a single image of a much-decorated, disfigured soldier standing in a cemetery. (A related scene of a young man being interred in a coffin fashioned to look like a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun is particularly weird.) But what’s perhaps most notable is the meshing of all this material with tranquil images of Buddhist temples and the interior of cathedrals. But even those “religious” motifs have their counterpart in footage of a Jerusalem divided by walls manned by soldiers and orthodox Jews at the wailing wall, and that aerial shot at Mecca, which almost looks like a drain swallowing up the masses swirling around the stone.

And punctuating it all are posed shots of people staring intently into the camera, on one occasion set against a scene of mannequins being fabricated. And what seems an utterly extraneous sequence in which performance artist Olivier de Sagazan splashes clay and paint on himself and acts out gouging his eyes or being smeared with blood.

What’s all this supposed to suggest? Perhaps that a beautiful world has been degraded by the human presence. Perhaps that religion is an invitation to tranquility—or an avenue to dangerous fanaticism. Perhaps that the gulf between rich and poor is indescribably wide. Or perhaps “Samsara” (which in Sanskrit means something like the cycle of life) is just intended as a cinematic Rorschach test that conveys whatever you decide. It might bore you to tears, or move you to them; it might leave you awestruck; if you’re in the proper frame of mind (or a different era), it might just lead you to say “Groovy, dude.”

But in any case its impact is sporadic and spotty, like most non-verbal feature-length collections of random footage are. (There are no captions to indicate what we’re viewing at any given point.) At times it’s mesmerizing; at others, simply tedious. It’s up to you to decide which of the two wins out. 

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