Mark Metcalf
Moving Pictures

“Samsara,” an article of faith

Ron Fricke's new film, Samsara, conveys the power of faith around the world.

By - Oct 11th, 2012 02:51 pm
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Buddhist monks working on a sand mandala. A still from the movie “Samsara” directed by Ron Fricke and produced by Mark Magidson.

Samsara comes from a Tibetan word that means “the flow,” the cycle of life through which we all move and, according to some Eastern religions, on to the next life here on earth. The more casual meaning is “the world,” or all the things that occupy human beings. If you name a movie Samsara you promise a lot.

Director Ron Fricke was one of the writers on a 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi, a Hopi word which means “life out of balance.” Koyaanisqatsi was a stunning experience of visual images and music, high-speed film cut against extreme slow motion, set to the music of Phillip Glass, with no conventional narrative, no language at all, just image and sound. It reveals the effect man has had on his environment. Samsarak,  from the same school, is one of the most moving experiences I have had in a theater in a long time.

The statues of Mount Nemrut in southeastern Turkey.

This film, shot in 65mm, is one of those films that really must be experienced on the big screen. It spans five years, five continents, twenty-five countries, and reqiured a whole lot of planning. It offers a vision of mankind as we make our way across this rock we all live on. Fricke emphasizes the massive numbers of us that now exist. The  vision is both terrifying and beautiful.

One of the main profound sequences focuses on a group of Buddhist monks at work on a sand painting of a mandala. Intricately, carefully they construct a beautiful, colorful image, a circle perhaps four feet in diameter. They seem to lay down colored sand one grain at a time. They take weeks to complete the mandala. Near the end of the film, the monks perform the ritual destruction of the painting; they pray, then systematically sweep the sand into a bowl. In the west we would throw up our hands and say something like, “Holy cow, all that work.” But for them it speaks of the transience of material life and reminds them of the eternal nature of the spirit.

Praying at the Kaba in Makkah during Ramadan.

There are many powerful scenes. One, that speaks to the power of faith, is a sequence of shots starting from a medium distance, of the faithful circling and praying at the Kaba in Makkah. Several hundred, if not a thousand men circle the huge black box, reach out to touch it and chant their prayers, as thousands more pray and wait to enter the circling mass. As the camera retreats further and further you see more and more men, waiting, praying, all focusing their energy, their faith on the Kaba and Allah. By the time the camera has backed away to what must be the altitude of a blimp floating above the mass of humanity, you see that there must be a hundred thousand or more giving themselves over to this idea, to this belief. It is impressive — and frightening, because many in this country dismiss Islam, dismiss and ridicule a faith that commands such devotion. One does not do well to make an enemy of such energy.

Samsara opens Friday Oct, 12, at the Oriental Theatre, corner of North and Farwell.

Categories: A/C Feature 2, Movies

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