Thirty years ago, a popular film on the midnight-movie circuit was “Koyaanisqatsi.” With a title taken from an American Indian word for “life out of balance,” Godfrey Reggio's wordless documentary lured dreamers into the sacred cave of cinema, where they ingested the serial music of Philip Glass and the time-lapse imagery of cinematographer Ron Fricke.
Fricke then embarked on similar films of his own: 1985's “Chronos” and 1992's “Baraka.” His projects entail years of travel to sacred or surreal locations around the globe.
“Samsara,” from a Sanskrit word that means the cycle of life and death, is not a noticeable departure from Fricke's other films — and for that we say hallelujah. This unspeakably gorgeous travelogue was shot on 70mm film in 25 countries over five years. In the non-denominational church of the senses, it's a holy document.
Diverse religious traditions are woven into the fabric of the film, starting with a shell-horn invocation by Tibetan monks, calling the young acolytes in a mountain temple to witness the ritual of sand painting.
Other images of sacred places include fog-shrouded pagodas in Burma and the vaulted ceilings of the Vatican; yet Fricke cannily juxtaposes these religious sites with natural wonders, such as the sandstone arches of Utah's Monument Valley, and urban versions of heaven-thrusting spaces, such as the skyscrapers of Shanghai.
Mechanized modernity is the devil in this drama. Fricke bounces us from a Chinese steam-iron factory and a conveyor-belt slaughterhouse to an American discount store where this crud is consumed and a Brazilian trash heap where the peasants pick through the leftovers. There's bountiful irony in the workshop where sex dolls get hand-painted eyelashes, the Bangkok nightclub where the slo-mo bikini babes are actually men and the Filipino prison where the inmates channel their aggressions into elaborate dance routines. The film's sole misstep is a too-confrontational scene where a performance artist dressed as a businessman enacts a nervous breakdown with slathered makeup and mud.
The eerie, percussive soundtrack features Lisa Gerrard, vocalist of the trance band Dead Can Dance.
A world of wonders without a guide or an agenda, “Samsara” rewards a leap of faith.
Four stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:42 • Content Some mature themes and intense documentary images • Where Tivoli