SPIRES ON THE PLAIN: 'Samsara' roams the globe looking for striking images, including a vista of Bagan temples in Burma.

In Samsara, one finds a visually overpowering meditation on the sufferings and endurance of this planet, with a world-music soundtrack but with no overt directorial comment. The recruitment to express oneself spiritually doesn't have to be put into words—it's implicit. Director Ron Fricke shot Koyaanisqatsi, still the best of the half-dozen or so films in this micro-genre. Listen to Philip Glass' soundtrack of that 1982 movie (one of the most powerful film scores ever composed, certainly), and one can hear how the matchlessly turbulent music gave the images a pulse.

Fricke's work in time-lapse photography is pioneering—consider the wheeling stars over a beyond-ancient bristlecone pine, or the play of day and night and day over the ruins in the desert. We see the Los Angeles freeways as a torrent of cars and flashing lights. The road system looks like a living and malevolent electronic brain, lighting up with a million thoughts at once. This is exactly the effect Fricke is looking for: a justification of the title's reference to the wheel of suffering, which can only be escaped through religion.

Repeatedly, Fricke closes in on the calm gaze of a mammoth gilded Buddha, whose facial expression could be summed up by the chorus of a certain Radiohead tune: "I'm not here. This isn't happening." Sometimes, Fricke's segues are intriguing—ancient ruins to a modern house somewhere (the Aral Sea, maybe?), quite literally deserted, swamped by sands. But some of the juxtapositions have the essential banality of a Life magazine pictorial: heavily tattooed ruffian cradles his small smooth baby; numbered and nigh-identical sex workers at Patpong Road are placed next to plastic, anatomically correct sex toys.

Factory farming and assembly lines are speeded up to insane yet futile pace compared to the slow, worshipful crawls through the Vatican, St. Chapelle and a flyover of Southeast Asian wats. We see condo palaces on the edge of fetid slums, and the grisliness of agribusiness. What Fricke leaves out, the mass, sped-up slaughter of the chickens and the steers, would be even worse.

Samsara is like the IMAX spectacle films: gorgeous, sweeping and even sometimes intimate (as in the ultra-ultra-closeups of Tibetan monks putting their intricate designs on a sand mandala). In terms of argument, it's hackneyed and reductive. I've been a commuter on packed subway trains for years, and yet I insist I'm not an ant.


PG-13; 99 min.

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