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'Samsara' a study in contrasts ★★★

Gorgeous and a tiny bit bubble-headed, full of ancient ruins and marvelous faces and time-lapse landscapes of crazed LA freeways in action, "Samsara" takes its title from a Sanskrit word that translates, roughly, to "the ever-turning wheel of life."

The wheel spins; humankind's stewardship of Earth continues to provoke debate and wonderment and gradual or rapid ruination. If there's a moral here, it is simply: Be careful. "Samsara" may not give audiences much more than an expansive nonverbal variation on the old Yakov Smirnoff catchphrase. But honestly: What a planet!

They are not all the same movie, but "Koyaanisqatsi" (1983) and its sequels "Powaqqatsi" (1988) and "Naqoyqatsi" (2002), all from director Godfrey Reggio, work in a similar imagistic key to "Chronos" (1985) and "Baraka" (1992), directed by "Samsara" helmsman Ron Fricke (also a key collaborator on "Koyaanisqatsi").

Fricke and his producer/co-editor/co-writer Mark Magidson continue what they started in earnest in "Baraka," a pictorial exploration of mind-boggling extremes within both the natural world and the world as it has been adjusted for industrialization. The new film was photographed over a period of several years, beginning in 2007, in 25 different countries.

So what do we see? I mean, what don't we see? A clothes-iron assembly line (location, unspecified; nothing is stated or labeled directly here, by design), staffed by anonymous workers. Chickens, cows, pigs, ready for slaughter. Overweight fast-food consumers, observed dispassionately. An obese man goes under the surgeon's knife (for weight loss, or something else?). The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is juxtaposed against the arrogant elegance of Versailles. Simple, blunt contrasts rule the day in "Samsara."

This is cinema as "guided meditation," in Fricke's words, "on the cycle of birth, death and rebirth." Magidson has said it's all about "impermanence," how ancient cultures and traditions persist against the odds, in the realm of handicrafts, performance, visual art. The makers of "Samsara" declined to shoot digitally, preferring the texture and sheen of 70-millimeter cameras — not easy to lug around the world but worth it.

The movie's impressive, whether it's observing garbage pickers in a miserable landfill site or taking in the power of an active Hawaiian volcano. The movie's also a series of generalities and surface connections. The cutting rhythm is rather indistinct, as well as far less conventionally meditative than was "Koyaanisqatsi" a generation ago. Once heard, composer Philip Glass' bone-rattling musical scoring for that picture (which really knocked me out when I was in college) was never forgotten, and it suited that film's free-form essay approach with magical rightness. "Samsara," by contrast, has music that serves the immediate atmospheric purpose and no more. It sounds like nothing in particular, and musical score aside I don't know if it's a movie to rattle around in your brain or your soul.

I do know this: "Samsara" is gorgeous. And sometimes, depending on expectations, looks are enough.

mjphillips@tribune.com

'Samsara' -- 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some disturbing and sexual images)

Running time: 1:39

Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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