Samsara can be watched by anyone with eyes to see; watched without any bother, in fact, as it has no dialogue. But it does feature a haunting, beautiful score that does all the talking you need, as it were. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance is one of the composers, so 'haunting' it's got to be then.
In an Around the World in 80 Days-type scenario, filming took place in Africa (Ghana, Namibia, Ethiopia, Mali), Japan, The Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France, Denmark, South Korea, the US (Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, California) and other places too.
The film initially suggests a sumptuous travelogue is in store, as a trio of girl dancers with bewitching eyes impishly shimmy and dazzle. The camera locks intimately on them, probing with its voyeuristic lens the mystery of these young performers’ souls.
An absorbing sequence of images follows, drawing us in on a strange, relentless journey. A landscape dotted with temples, a sand dune half in shadow, gold light racing quickly along its flank... Yep, our old friend time-lapse - surprisingly effective as used in Samsara.
These images from around the globe come with such speed that it is nigh impossible to remember them all - they return individually in the days afterwards in flashback. Billows of smoke emanate from a volcano and sparks fly - will this be a sophisticated version of National Geographic, but without some glibly authoritative American voiceover, you briefly wonder? Not quite.
After the first 15 minutes or so of exotic travelogue the mood darkens, and we are in a devastated New Orleans suburb in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. We see the interior of a wrecked house - an abandoned bedroom, pin-ups of celebrities on the wall and a dust-covered tape deck. These are followed by a trailer home on top of a car and more unblinking images of destruction. The camera also stalks a ruined library, with shelves of damaged books.
Then we get stunning panoramic shots of Hong Kong and its multiple skyscrapers, filmed at night. Images, too, of what must be a million men, kneeling and rising from prayer at Mecca.
Where's the connection? Are there meant to be connections at all in this expanding web? Is there a narrative that's eluding you? To the end, Samsara cannily holds its mysteries, because there is no seeming order or shape to the random images.
At giant factories in South Korea, hundreds of employees in bright yellow work tunics enter at tall gates, taking their places on vast assembly lines. As they make and package foodstuff the film is speeded up, the giant workforce moving with the frenzy of ants.
Is there a point being made about the soullessness of modern work practices? Probably - almost definitely in the close-up of welts on the bare shoulders of a man carrying a double hod of sulphur. This man and his fellow miners tread warily in the high mountains, where a fall could be fatal.
A switch all of a sudden leads us into meat-processing plants with cows in enormous milking parlours and thousands of chickens in vast batteries – gutted and later scorched with blowtorches. Then the film sneakily moves to Ladyboy dancers in bikinis, each tagged with a number. In one of the tenuous links that are perhaps the real magic of Samsara, they are related somehow to those Japanese sex dolls, lying deathly still in their airy lair.
We have indeed come far from the innocent young dancers at the start of the film. Samsara is no longer a travelogue, that’s for sure. The film softly glides into the armaments industry and the gun, as manifest in disparate cultures around the globe. Unforgettable are the faces of the American family with their rifles, their cold, unflinching stares and the pink rifle for the teenage daughter followed by the scorched, mutilated features of the uniformed marine in the war cemetery, staring silently at the lens, his face irrevocably ruined.
The camera fixes on the elaborately made-up face of a geisha girl or actress. She seems reasonably self-possessed, with her painted eyebrows, swept back hair and white face. Then a tear suddenly trickles down her cheek; the scene fades.
More poignant, perhaps, because they are un-staged are the before-and-after images of the Buddhist monks at their mandalas. Mandalas are those beautiful tapestries they make with sands of different hues, poured from tiny brass funnels.
The camera revisits the monks, after globetrotting in other places. A monk dramatically draws a rough cross across their intricate handiwork, before he and his companions sweep the glittering dust into a heap.
It’s a profound lesson about the vanity of so much human endeavour: ultimately all things must pass. It may be the most enduring in the myriad images we have just let fall across our vision.