The pyramids of Egypt, a junkyard in Southern California, prisoners dancing in the Philippines -- how these fascinating but disparate images fit together in "Samsara," a non-narrative, wide-ranging travelogue, is never clear. The title is a Sanskrit word for something like "wheel of life" or "cycle of existence." That's a concept that thrums with cosmic mystery, but it's clearly no help to a filmmaker trying to whittle down his footage in the editing room.
The director of "Samsara" is Ron Fricke, best known as the cinematographer for the 1982 New Age landmark "Koyaanisqatsi" (Hopi for "life out of balance"), which juxtaposed natural beauty with industrial landscapes to make its point. In "Samsara," Fricke's first solo effort since 1992's "Baraka," the director proves that his eye for mesmerizing motion is as sharp as ever, and he fills his giant, 70-mm canvas with gorgeous, saturated colors. Thematically, however, "Samsara" is a blur.
Is there some connection between the pocked moonscape of Cappadocia and the cracked mud left by Hurricane Katrina? A crying geisha and a multilevel slum? Things become clearer when Fricke turns his camera on human endeavors, using time-lapse photography to heighten the choreography of slaughterhouses, assembly-lines, subway systems and the whirling mosh-pit of pilgrims at Mecca. Here the movie seems onto something, a vision of the world as a single, thriving organism.
More often, though, "Samsara" is simply free-associating: A tribal warrior appears, followed by a maimed U.S. veteran; Costco shoppers give way to obesity surgery. That's obvious enough, but what about the random fashionistas, the tattooed canoodlers, the proud gun-toters? Are they being mocked, admired or simply observed? If the latter, why them as opposed to anyone else?
"Samsara" looks fantastic, and its Eastern exoticism may give it the appearance of philosophical depth. Its message, though, is pretty simple: That's life!
PLOT A non-narrative collage of natural and industrial imagery from around the world. RATING PG-13 (some disturbing imagery)
PLAYING AT Roslyn Cinemas.
BOTTOM LINE Mesmerizing and beautifully photographed, but the lack of thematic focus makes this little more than a cool-looking travelogue.