Having scored a hit with “Baraka,” which allowed its targeted New Age crowd to globe-trot from comfy theater seats, director Ron Fricke and his team revisit much the same international turf 19 years later with “Samsara,” a similar type of dialogue-free picture postcard. The Sanskrit-language title, which translates as “cyclic existence,” doesn’t quite apply to what’s more a large-scale travelogue, lensed in 65mm and projected in 4K HD (a Toronto fest first). Picturesque but essentially empty at the core, “Samsara” should match “Baraka’s” B.O. panoramas.Fricke and his producer/co-editor/co-writer Mark Magidson venture to 26 countries, Fricke shooting with an eye for beautiful sights (such as Yosemite, Angola’s Epupa Falls, the Himalayas), a few tourist attractions (such as Petra), several closeup stationary portraits of people across a range of cultures (from a gun-toting Anglo family to African tribal members), as well as key religious centers from Tibet and Mecca to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and European cathedrals. The editing scheme conveys no particular meaning, as the film shifts from volcanoes to Tibetan monks creating mandalas to Egyptian pharaoh artifacts to various ancient settlements as far flung as Turkey and the U.S. Southwest to Gothic cathedrals and, voila, Versailles. That’s just some of the opening section, and although one could reach for connective threads as “Samsara” proceeds, any thematic patterns seem obscure at best, in what much more closely parallels the effect of paging through a gigantic fine-arts coffee-table book. Despite certain moments when Fricke’s camera captures contemporary settings laden with political symbolism, such as the wall dividing Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the overwhelming sense — as in “Baraka” — is of an eye-popping bigscreen spectacle. This sense is encouraged by a mesmerizing score by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello de Francisci, with considerably strong additional selections from Keith Jarrett’s organ album, “Hymns/Spheres” (used in William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer”) and cues by Steve Tibbetts. The primary interest here is Fricke’s technical achievement as a roving cinematographer who seems to know no physical limits in the spaces and places he photographs, among the most resonant being massive high-angle long-shots of Mecca during Hajj when thousands of pilgrims amass and pray at the holy site. Among the humans filmed, standouts include the 1,000 Hand Goddess dancers from China for sheer expressiveness and startling beauty, and artist Olivier De Sagazan’s wild act with clay, dirt and paint for grotesquerie. The two have little to do with each other except for their inclusion in a general file titled “Eye Candy.” Sound in Dolby Surround 7.1 and 4K image (mastered from digitally oversampled 8K hi-res of the original 65mm-lensed film image) present the pic in its optimal condition, though 70mm fans might clamor for a celluloid projection.
A Magidson Films presentation. Produced by Mark Magidson. Directed by Ron Fricke. Written by Fricke, Mark Magidson.
Camera (color, 65mm-to-HD), Fricke; editors, Fricke, Magidson; music, Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard, Marcello de Francisci; sound (Datasat/Dolby Surround 7.1), Kaspar Hugentobler; sound designers, Stearns, Miguel Rivera; supervising sound editor, Rivera; re-recording mixer, Matthew Iadarola; line producer, Myles Connolly; associate producer, John Chandler Earle. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 11, 2011. No MPAA Rating. Running time: 102 MIN.