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REVIEW: Samsara
REVIEW: Samsara

You would think that in a world drowning in images - from holiday snaps, wedding photos and cute pets paraded on Facebook and Instagram to the scary Bourne movie-like invasiveness of Google Earth - the last thing we would need is another feature-length visual travelogue from the people behind the 1992 film, Baraka.

Of course, Ron Fricke and his team boast that they have filmed Samsara using 70mm, which gives extraordinary clarity and richness to the pictures they have gleaned from their five-year odyssey through 25 countries across five continents.

And Samsara is certainly stunning to look at - but so are the pictures on the iPad that I gave to my daughter for Christmas. Somebody aimed it at the table between shovelfuls of turkey and a front-end loader of Pavlova and the result bore a passing resemblance to a Manet or Matisse.

So a movie fundamentally made of pretty pictures from places far away needs to have more in the age of the Internet - and, thankfully, Fricke has done something more than pointing the camera and shooting.

He's made something that feels like a real movie with tension, drama and a strong point of view about the fragility of our planet, the connections between the natural and the manufactured worlds and, in the most startling sequences, forces us to ask questions about the relationship between "farm" animals - I use the term loosely - and workers in the industrial food chain.

Samsara starts out lyrically enough, with Fricke's roving camera moving from startling images of natural phenomena, such as a volcanic eruption in Hawaii and clouds of such beauty, it's as if God was fluffing his pillows, to a group of Buddhist monks in northern India using coloured sand to make a sand painting of breathtaking intricacy (the title of the movie is Sanskrit for the cycle of life).

The serene scene and other images of birth and nature at its most elemental and assertive gradually give way to human creations - from the magnificence of the Versailles and the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel to more dubious modern-day cathedrals of consumerism, such as the shopping malls of Dubai and its artificial ski slopes.

Samsara really starts to bite when Fricke trains his camera on the more troublesome aspects of the modern world that normally come to us in grainier, grungier fashion snatched by makers of low-budget activist documentaries - life-sized plastic ladies being manufactured for the Japanese sex industry; the ladyboys of Thailand; an army of scavengers on a massive dump in the Philippines; and, most disturbing, the mass production of food.

We've seen more horrific images of battery hens and the butchering of livestock in films such as Food Inc. and Fast Food Nation.

However, Fricke does not shoot for horror but simply holds his camera at a distance and reveals to us the cold and mechanical nature of the process - large-scale slaughter made shockingly efficient.

Fricke has edited these and other scenes of mass production so effectively that at times we are not sure who's suffering more - the animals being processed or the workers involved in mind- numbingly repetitive factory work.

But even these most troubling of images are shot with the same sumptuousness as is brought to the more traditionally beautiful places, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza or Monument Valley in Arizona, revealing that the connection between nature at its most breathtaking and humanity at its highest is never far removed from decay, destruction, exploitation and death.

And all will return to dust, like the painting brushed away by the Buddhist monks in the thought-provoking finale.