For many filmgoers, the phrase "from the makers of Baraka" is enough to make a movie a must-see. Released in 1992 to international acclaim, Baraka compiled a year's worth of footage filmed all over the globe—Eastern religious rituals, time-lapse nature footage, German concentration camps—into a 90-minute "guided meditation on humanity." The resulting film dazzled viewers into a trancelike state that didn't preclude engagement of the brain. The filmmakers artfully assembled their beautiful and terrible images with a deeply poetic flow.
Twenty years later, Baraka gets its sequel: Samsara, another nonnarrative cinema meditation, filmed over five years in 25 countries and exploring "the ever-turning wheel of life." Packed from start to finish with astounding images and sequences, Samsara is every bit the equal of Baraka, and perhaps even more impressive thanks to its state-of-the-art 4K digital projection at Cinerama (one of only a handful of US cinemas capable of such projection). More than anything, Samsara at Cinerama reminded me of the Disney California Adventure attraction Soarin' Over California, if the imagery of that motion-simulating ride had been assembled by the most meticulous and ambitious filmmakers in the world.
Divided into a series of thematically linked segments, Samsara starts by finding beauty exactly where it ought to be: in a lavishly costumed, intricately choreographed dance, with the dancers' extravagantly made-up faces shot in tight close-up. But soon the wheel of life spins away, and we're thrown into worlds of beauty that are incidental or even cruel. One running theme is the eternal loop of creation and destruction. When we first see a room filled with sand, it's shot so beautifully, it looks like an installation art project. The second, longer shot tells the truth: The room is part of a house gutted by flood. The final, longest shot pulls back far enough to glimpse the eternal, revealing the eye-pleasing patterns emerging indifferently among the cascading mountains of sand.
In one of its most surprising segments, Samsara presents viewers with a familiar sight: a Filipino prison yard full of orange-jumpsuited inmates, all performing choreography in lockstep. On YouTube, the dancing Filipino prisoners came off as a unified mob of faceless men. In Samsara, we get in close, and this unified mob turns into a wildly idiosyncratic group of humans—some of whom are deeply, even prissily, passionate about the dance, while others suffer through it as another punishment on par with cleaning toilets. It's an instantly humanizing moment, one of many in a film packed with them. Don't miss it.