DVD+Digital: Sand mandalas, sex dolls and Samsara

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samsara.jpg
  • courtesy of MPI Home Video

"Samsara" is a Sanskrit term that suggests the endless flow of life and death in the material world. It's a core concept in Indian spiritual traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. Samsara is the trap of the waking world, from which we can only awaken through enlightenment.

The film Samsara, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week, is an attempt to evoke this cosmic concept by way of music and motion picture images. It's a non-narrative documentary, a visual essay, or — in the words of director Ron Fricke — "a guided mediation on the cycle of birth, death and re-birth."

But, hey — don't let that scare you off. Above all, Samsara is a visual wonder with world-class cinematography that rivals anything bankrolled by the BBC, National Geographic or Discovery. Director Fricke has been working in this vein for a while and he knows what he's doing. He directed the similarly-themed Baraka in 1992, and before that was cinematographer for director Godfrey Reggio's pioneering Koyaanisqatsi in 1982.

The film begins with Tibetan Buddhist monks assembling a sand mandala, an intricately designed abstract pattern created over the course of days, grain by grain (literally). The sand mandala ritual is intended to suggest the world's transience and impermanence, and the rest of the film can be considered an expansion on that notion.

In the film business, Fricke is an acknowledged master of time-lapse photography and much of Samsara is built around this technique, now familiar from a thousand nature documentaries. Here, Fricke takes things to another level. As he films a particular scene — carved stone faces in the desert, say — he moves his camera in tiny increments over 12 or 24 hours. The result is a 10-second sequence in which the camera appears to be meandering through the scene at a tourist's pace. But clouds speed overhead, stars wheel in the night, and those ancient stone faces stay utterly still and serene.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a sequence like that is worth a thousand sutras. Fricke pulls off similar magic tricks throughout the film, juxtaposing images and using his cinematic toolbox to have his way with time and space.

As revealed in the DVD extras, Samsara was shot in the 70-mm film format over the course of four years, in 25 different countries, by Fricke and a four-man skeleton crew. The score — by composers Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, and Marcello De Francisci — moves from blissed-out ambiance to stately cathedral organ to hard-thumping EDM.

Scenes and images flow into one another in dreamlike fashion. Drifting dunes of sand give way to the pulsing red highway arteries of the city. A sequence of toddlers getting baptized flips to Asian street punks in Elvis pompadours. An opera in Milan is time-lapsed into five seconds: People file in, some other people move around a stage, people file back out. It sounds surreal, but it's not quite that. There's rhyme to the sequencing, if not reason.

That said, several scenes have a more overt agenda. The machine processing of chickens in China is followed by images of obese patients in hospitals. Slow-motion strip club footage is paired with images of headless sex dolls being assembled. (The heads are manufactured separately from the bodies, apparently. That seems noteworthy.) Gun factory footage dissolves to a portrait of a maimed veteran. In the context of the rest of the film, these passages can feel forced.

Throughout it all, Fricke pauses to film people in formal portrait-style compositions, staring wordlessly into the camera alone or in small groups. The focus is always on the eyes, and the effect is seriously close to hypnotic. I may have gone under once or twice watching this thing. The film closes its circle in the end, returning to the temple as the monks brush away their meticulously constructed sand mandala.

At the end of a film like this, the questions become: Do the images add up to anything? Does the film register as an emotional experience? For me, it did. I felt calmed and thoughtful afterward, but also rather severely sad. In the making-of extras, Fricke reveals that he deliberately inserted the film's more disturbing images in specific places, as part of a plan dictated "more by feeling than thinking."

That sounds about right. Samsara aims to communicate on a level beyond words or thoughts, and so it does. It's movie as meditation, and quite the experience.

Also New This Week:

Compliance, the dark and controversial indie from UNC School of the Arts graduate Craig Zobel, asks some hard questions about submission and authority. Check out Zack Smith's interview with Zobel here.

Tim Burton's creepy, beautiful Frankenweenie was probably the best family film of last year, so long as your kids are cool with dead dog stories. The DVD/Blu-ray combo pack adds some nice extras for animations obsessives — behind-the-scenes details on the stop-motion 3-D technique and a profile of the film's touring exhibition of props. Also look for the new short film Captain Sparky vs The Flying Saucers.

Julianne Moore stars as Sarah Palin in HBO's Game Change, set during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

Plus: Karl Urban in the sci-fi reboot Dredd, Jennifer Lawrence in the scary movie House at the End of the Street, Juno Temple in the psychological thriller Jack and Diane, and Bradley Cooper in the couple-on-the-lam comedy Hit and Run.

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