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Feature


From Ron Fricke, the director of Baraka (1992) and the cinematographer of Chronos (1985), comes another technically indulgent, 70mm tone poem called Samsara. On the film’s official website, Samsara is described as follows:

Samsara
Quote: Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever-turning wheel of life’ and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives. Filmed over a period of almost five years and in twenty-five countries, Samsara transports us to sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites, and natural wonders. By dispensing with dialogue and descriptive text, Samsara subverts our expectations of a traditional documentary, instead encouraging our own inner interpretations inspired by images and music that infuses the ancient with the modern.

Because conceptual, dialogue-free art films like these are almost impossible for me to review in a standard manner, I’m going to mostly compare Fricke’s efforts here to his two previous features. One part narrative-free travelogue, one part meditative tone poem, Samsara is very much the spiritual sequel to Baraka and Chronos (which the filmmakers refer to as Baraka-lite in interviews). It is, once again, a practice in contrasting the largeness and smallness of our world. Fricke compares the natural world, the third world, and the industrialized world, then allows the viewer’s personal prisms to filter their perception. The editing practices here are a bit more pointed than those of Baraka. There’s no mistaking some of these comparisons, such as the juxtaposition of ancient ruins and the hurricane Katrina-ravaged ruins of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward or the juxtaposition of the construction of plastic ‘real-dolls’ and images of strippers vapidly staring past camera. This is a mixed blessing of creating a stronger narrative sense, including a modern performance art scene where a businessman covers himself in clay and paint, while also beating the audience over the head with symbolism. Overall this should have probably remained a more subjective artistic exercise.

Samsara
Samsara is a slightly darker film than Baraka, at least in tone, largely due to its images of death, including mummified corpses, war machines (bullets and guns being manufactured, the Chinese military marching), and animals butchered for food on a grand scale (both of which appeared less graphically in the previous film). But it’s not as dark as the filmmakers seem to think it is. This isn’t a Koyaanisqatsi versus Naqoyqatsi-type situation. Fricke tends to treat technology with a bit more awe this time around as well, though he doesn’t skimp on the creepy qualities of modern robotics (the aforementioned clay and paint performance is set against these) and the caged nature of a modern workplace. Environmental protest also remains a constant theme, too, but this film doesn’t tend to shun industrial progress as readily as Fricke’s previous films in the series. One gets the feeling that we aren’t meant to judge the production/destruction/reconstitution of industrial products and foods as much as we’re meant to be hypnotized by the rhythm of these processes. At worst, Fricke and company try to recreate some of the most memorable images from Baraka on different locations, none of which match that film’s spellbinding qualities.

Samsara

Video


Filmed entirely on large format, Super Panavison 70mm film (65mm negative size) and scanned digitally at 8k resolution, Samsara is probably the best analogue footage can ever look on digital home video format. This process of over-sampling at 8k and resizing for the 1080p format (which is slightly smaller resolution than 2k, for those of you keeping track) was ‘originally pioneered’ for Baraka’s Blu-ray release (which was great, because that DVD looked pretty bad) and, according to the film’s official website, is now a ‘widely adapted industry practice.’ I’m not sure about that (it seems that 2k and 4k are the buzz on most box art), nor am I sure that over-sampling to such a degree makes any difference, following the compression needed to fit the data (‘in excess of 20 terabytes,’ according to the website), but I am sure that this comparatively tiny looks absolutely fantastic. Basically, this is a reference disc, on the level of stuff like the Planet Earth series and, of course, Baraka. The 2.39:1 frame (wider than Baraka’s 2.20:1) is positively brimming with detail and the detail encompasses everything from minute, practically microscopic, fine textures to vast, expansive images overloaded with complex patterns. This is one of those discs that makes me wish I had a bigger set, as the vast scope of detail leads to some shimmering effects that are likely not an issue for those lucky souls with 60-plus inch televisions or projection screens.

When directly compared to the images of Baraka, Samsara appears a bit more ‘digital’ with its glowing colour qualities and slightly softer contrast practices. This is likely due to the production’s practice of transferring their analogue footage to a digital realm before editing, which allowed Fricke to both ‘refine’ (read: alter) the footage and composite it using Final Cut (I’m curious to know if the raw 65mm negative was ever projected). This doesn’t necessarily mean the image is unnatural, there’s just something slightly hyper-real about the colours, which, by the way, are extremely vibrant and impeccably separated. Standard filmic artefacts like fine grain (not digital or telecine noise) and pencil-thin edge haloes, are here to prove the analogue source and I don’t think too many fans will be upset with the effect. The only time I noticed any issues with compression was during the fast-forward swirling mass of humanity within Mecca, where minor blocking appears around some of the harsher edges.

Samsara

Audio


Samsara is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound. This track is, like the Baraka track, defined by clarity and subtlety. There’s no mistaking the strength of the noise, but the sound designers are continuously careful to not simply blast the audience with high dynamic ranges. This design supports the film’s immersive and mesmerizing experience while still acting as an effective reference level disc for folks looking to show off their home theaters. More often than not, there is only music to support the images, but exceptions, like the heavy bass of a smoldering volcano, the shimmering buzz of insects, the echoing cry of prayer horns, the steady roar of massive waterfalls, and the clank of manufactured bullets, are all presented with profound depth of field and are also delicate enough to not overpower the finer aural embellishments that accompany them. Once again composer Michael Stearns provides a wall of conceptual/ambient music backdrop for Fricke’s ravishing imagery (he was credited lead composer on Baraka and Chronos as well). Stearns is joined by vocalist/composer Lisa Gerrard, who was credited with co-composing parts of Baraka’s score along with her band Dead Can Dance, and composer/producer/music mixer Marcello De Francisci. The musical sound qualities are expertly mixed between live, occasionally on-screen instrumentations and more ambient, studio-produced compositions. At best these blend into each other on an almost subconscious level and create a continuous swirl of meditative sound. The best of the rare, aggressive musical practices is an electronic beat-heavy dance sequence that takes place at the famous Cebu Province Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippnes. Baraka’s soundtrack ended up being sampled for big-budget, Hollywood productions, including Blade and The Mist, so it will be interesting to see if Samsara’s music has an equal long-term impact.

Samsara

Extras


The relatively brief extras begin with a behind the scenes featurette (49:50, HD), which is broken into six sections. The Concept sees Fricke and producer Mark Magidson discussing the vision for the film and the differences between it and Baraka. This threatens to over-explain things, but did help me realize that I had read the majority of the film ‘correctly.’ The Production covers the difficult processes of shooting around the world on large-format film, including behind the scenes photographs, and additional interviews with production coordinator Michelle Peele, line producer Myles Connolly, production assistant/assistant camera JC Earle, imaging producer/technical director Christopher Reyna. The Editing reveals that this project, unlike Baraka, was cut entirely without music and discusses the justification of the various juxtapositions. The Musical Journey continues the narrative of the editing practices by discussing the more intuitively added musical score and the division of composition labour, including interviews with composer Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci. The Technical Approach is all about the 70mm to digital via telecine process and downgrading the image to a 1080p Blu-ray transfer. The Filmmakers finishes things off with a look at the creative staff’s histories. The extras are wrapped up with a couple of trailers.

Samsara

Overall


Samsara is so unquestionably Baraka’s sister feature that it’s practically impossible to separate the two films critically. Comparatively ,I suppose Baraka is still the better film, but, even when it’s acting too aggressively moralistic with its symbolism, Samsara is a valuable follow-up, because it embraces more modern imagery. This Blu-ray presentation, which features 8k-scanned, 1080p-compressed image, is outrageously gorgeous (the bigger the set the better) and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is rich and clean. The extras are sort of basic, but informative, nonetheless.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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