Señor y Señora

Samsara Review: A Journey through the Bardo

This one-of-a-kind film does the impossible

6 mins read

(Spain, 103 min.)
Dir. Lois Patiño

The afterlife may perhaps be the most impossible subject for a documentary to capture. And yet Lois Patiño has done it with Samsara. This truly one-of-a-kind film must be seen to be believed—and that’s an odd statement for a movie that instructs viewers to watch it with their eyes closed.

However, when a title card appears at the end of the film’s fist act and advises viewers to shut their eyes, just go with it. Surrender to the sounds of Samsara and one undergoes a transcendental cinematic experience. The film lets a viewer journey through the end of one life to the beginning of another. More impressively, it conveys the act of reincarnation without a hint of pretension. It’s a work without equal or precedent, although one might invite comparison to Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Eduardo Williams for how they experiment with new cinematic languages. But it’s not hyperbole to say that Samsara is one of those films from which one emerges transformed.

Patiño offers an enigmatic take on hybrid cinema that invites audiences to journey through the bardo. The odyssey through the transitional state between life and death in Buddhist theology begins at a picturesque monastery in Luang Prabang, Laos. Monks pray, eat, and watch some videos on their smartphones. A teenage visitor arrives and pays regular trips to see an elderly woman, Mon. Her health is failing her, and the young man brings her comfort. He wakes her with the touch of water droplets on her fingers and then prepares her soul by reading to her. The readings, moreover, draw from the Bardo Thodol, or The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The young man and the monks remark that the book should be read aloud. The reader therefore prepares both Mon and the viewer for the journey ahead.

In between these readings, Patiño offers vignettes of daily life in the monastery. His observational style create a meditative slice of slow cinema. Slight prompts invite conversations that one can tune in and out of amid the film’s richly layered soundscape. Birdsong, rustling leaves, crashing waterfalls, and rippling tides create an immersive sonic experience. The film finely attunes a viewer to listen actively to the soundtrack. Samara heightens the senses as the long takes transport one to richly coloured environments in which the soundtrack is as dense as the verdant greenery, captured beautifully on 16mm film, that surrounds the monks.

The involved exercise of the eardrums proves a mere warm-up, however, once title cards advise everyone to shut their eyes. As Mon’s soul enters the bardo, so too does everyone willing to go along for the ride. Patiño doesn’t simply cut to black though. As the dense soundtrack navigates this in-between space, the screen pulses with light. Strobe-like shocks of red, green, and blue create after-images in the mind’s eye. (Admittedly, this reviewer took a few peeks.)

These flashing lights punctuate the soundscape designed by Xabier Erkizia, Found sounds mix music cues, like gongs, as Mon’s soul finds its new vessel. It’s a 15-minute centrepiece that provides a Zen awakening.

More impressively, the film offers no audible prompt to open one’s eyes. However, one’s involvement in the process creates a natural waking rhythm. One emerge from the odyssey just in time to see a few drops of water grace a new hand.

The film’s second act listens in to the daily habits of the women on a seaweed farm in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Samsara adapts to the natural rhythms of life in the village, especially as a young girl takes an interest in a newly-born goat. She names it Neema and leads it around the village tied to a red string. The calf’s bleats touch the soul as the little girl becomes its protector, and Patiño lends Neema a distinct personality without anthropomorphizing the animal. It’s a curious little scene-stealer.

Neema wanders Zanzibar as the cycle of life continues. Samsara’s second act moves at a sprightlier pace with noises of the village’s hustle-bustle contrasting sharply with the sedate cadence and soothing sounds of life in the monastery. Women harvest seaweed, make soap, and talk about water pollution. And yet somehow, this goat’s well-being proves unexpectedly gripping amid all the action. One on hand, the film proves a convincing essay about the souls of animals, reminding audiences that we have more in common with our four-legged friends than we think. On the other, Neema’s piercing eyes provide windows to a soul that’s seen and heard a lot. With nary a word, she’ll convince a viewer that there’s life after death.

Samsara had its Toronto premiere as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s MDFF series.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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