Ron Fricke took five years and went to five continents to make his documentary “Samsara.” The title means “ever-turning wheel of life” in Sanskrit. In addition to directing, Fricke photographed the film and co-wrote it, with Mark Magidson. Writing in this case means conceptualizing and structuring, since “Samsara” is wordless. As if to compensate for the absence of speech, there’s a lot of music and ambient noise on the soundtrack. The result is like an issue of National Geographic gone mad.
Fricke, who directed another wordless documentary, “Baraka,” in 1992, presents a stream of filmed images. Much of that stream is stupendously beautiful. Even more of it is stupendously dull. Some of the sites “Samsara” visits are easy enough for viewers to identify: Yosemite, say, or Canyon de Chelly. But which desert might those sand dunes belong to? Is that Asian megalopolis Shanghai? Hong Kong? Tokyo? That storm damage was caused by a tornado or hurricane? (Hurricane – Katrina, in fact.)
Beauty doesn’t necessarily require identification. It may not even require meaning. But beauty over a span of more than 100 minutes needs something beyond itself to retain interest. History, it’s been said, consists of one damned thing after another. Fricke would seem to believe something similar about beauty.
Not everything in “Samsara” is beautiful, of course (though everything is shot beautifully). The wheel of life doesn’t turn that smoothly. That said, the first third of the film is pretty much all beauty — spiritual as well as visual. The film opens with three Balinese dancers performing, then visits sites that relate to creativity, holiness, or environmental splendor: an active volcano, a Tibetan monastery, Notre Dame Cathedral, Arches National Park.
The images then give way to a crowded, even overwhelming man-made world: cities at night, with speeded-up traffic flowing along highways; people working in offices; the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai; people working on assembly lines; people shopping in warehouse-style stores. There are multiple intermittent close-ups of inexpressive faces. The one bit that stands out shows a man seated at a desk, wearing a coat and tie, who proceeds to cover his face with paint —
Cows being milked by machinery give way to piglets being suckled. Is the implication that humans are pigs? Let’s hope not, since then we’re shown pig carcasses being prepared for consumption. Fat people eat in a fast food restaurant. A woman is prepared for cosmetic surgery. Piles of undressed mannequins are seen. Inmates in a Philippine prison do dance-style calisthenics (that bit’s pretty cool, actually). People pick through garbage dumps. Soldiers parade. Bullets are manufactured. The wheel keeps turning: the Dome of the Rock; the Wailing Wall; the Pyramids; the Kaaba, in Mecca; St. Peter’s; Tibet; Chinese dancers; sand dunes, with the wind blowing.
Only with the closing credits can viewers puzzle out what was what — and only if they’ve been attentive. Clearly, Fricke sees his film as being meaningful. Yet what he has done to the many subjects in “Samsara” is effectively reduce them to so many pretty (or not-so-pretty) pictures and render them abstract. People who like “Samsara” — and some reviews have been ecstatic — hail it as an aesthetic feast. But the aestheticization of existence the film represents is so complete as to be utterly barren and insubstantial. “Samsara” isn’t just wordless. It’s weightless, too.