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The Strangeness and
Wonder of our Planet
Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com
"Samsara" draws a sharp contract between the awe of
nature and the sometimes ruthless imposition of man's
Filmed over nearly five years in twenty-five
countries on five continents, and shot on seventy-millimetre film, "Samsara" transports us to the varied worlds of
sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial complexes, and natural
In the 1970s, "Samsara" would have been known as a head trip.
The critic Matt Zoller Seitz calls it "a trance movie." For Fricke and his
producer and collaborator Mark Magidson, it is a continuation of the meditative
imagery they used in "Baraka"
(1992), which intensely regarded the strangeness and wonder of our planet. Both
films draw a sharp contract between the awe of nature and the sometimes ruthless
imposition of man's will.
I learn from Wikipedia that
"samsara," literally meaning
"continuous flow," is "the repeating cycle of birth, life,
death and rebirth" within such Indian religions as Hinduism, Buddhism and
Sikhism. "Baraka" can refer to God's
I met Fricke and Magidson when a restored version of "Baraka"
was shown at Ebertfest, and had the impression that traveling the world and
recording these images was sort of their calling. Some of these places,
structures, peoples and practices will not endure forever, and if this planet someday becomes barren and lifeless, these films
could show visitors what was here.
"samsara" may also suggest some
of the ways in which it was lost. Although the documentary presents speeded-up
images of city traffic and unseemly mechanical haste, for me
the most unforgettable sequence is not one of breathtaking vistas or natural
beauty, but of chickens in a food-processing plant. They are "processed"
with such efficiency. Having spent their entire lives being fed while enclosed
in cages too small for them to turn around, they now suddenly find themselves on
a slippery stainless steel slope that feeds them relentlessly into a mechanical
process that in a few seconds beheads them, strips them of feathers and skin,
and slices them into parts. Chickens never seem very smart, but we can see the
alarm in their behavior because this process is obvious to them.
Now why would I dwell on such a sequence, which is probably
largely responsible for the film's PG-13 rating? Because I experienced it as a
shriek of terror. On this ancient and miraculous world, where such beautiful
natural and living things have evolved, something has gone wrong when life
itself is used as a manufacturing process. I read that in 50 years, we must
adopt a largely vegetarian diet or die, and forgive me if I take that as good
news. Something is out of balance, and "Samsara" regards the sides of the
I fear I haven't communicated what an uplifting experience the film is. In
its grand sweep, the chickens play a tiny role. If you see it as a trance movie,
a meditation, a head trip or whatever, it may cause you to become more thankful
for what we have here. It is a rather noble film.
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