Samsara is usually understood as the world of life, death, and reincarnation, though a simpler way to translate it is “the whirling world of change.: The latter suits the purposes of Ron Fricke’s Koyansaquatsi-styled film, which opens and closes with images of dance as metaphor and includes, as cinematic flourish, scene after scene of cameras staring into eyes that stare back at us.
The images and music are mostly beautiful, though the film would be a bogus meditation without some sense of the darkness after the light. And thus it opens on a trio of ornately made-up gamelan dancers and then shifts to images of a dead child preserved in some liquid. Perhaps the most disconcerting imagery is saved for what amounts to social commentary — ironic pictures of a mass chicken butchering plant. We don’t see the creatures actually killed, but the gigantic plant with workers in surgical attire gives you creepy pause, especially when combined with later images of trash pickers in a massive dump. Here, the whirling world is summed up with blades and waste.
But most of the film is a stunning travelogue leaning on the cosmic and, failing that, the religious. It’s all pretty universal, with time lapse shots from inside cathedrals, mosques, and Buddhist monasteries. Never strong enough to completely horrify or transport, Fricke’s film means to make us stare at ourselves. At the very least, it’s a fine escape into the real and strange vicissitudes of life.