In Buddhist philosophy, the term ‘Samsara’ refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, within which all living beings are bound by their intentional actions. Taking inspiration from this belief, Lois Patiño’s latest film, Samsara travels across life, death, the after-life, and the liminal state in between. The line between real and surreal blurs on the celluloid through the saturated colours (the tangerine robes, the milk-white baby goat, magenta khimar, etc.). Further, Patiño’s daring decision to make a film with a visually blank segment turns the theatre into a sanctuary.
As the title suggests, Samsara (2023) is a visual exploration into the nature of existence, taking the audience on a cyclical spiritual journey of a single soul whilst allowing a glimpse of the other characters’ lives. The film is divided into three parts: first, we follow the soul preparing to die in the body of an elderly ailing woman, Mon, in Laos. For Mon’s impending transmigration, a young man, Amid, travels every day to Mon’s house to read a passage from the Tibetan Book of the Dead—a book that is supposed to be read aloud by another person to the dying to assist them through death and rebirth. Meanwhile, we are also acquainted with novice monks’ ways of life at a local temple.
Following Mon’s death, we experience the spirit’s transcendence into the ‘intermediate existence’ in the cinema. In this 10-15 minute interval, we are told to close our eyes and guided by non-diegetic sounds and flashing lights. At last, we are (re)introduced to the lead as a kid goat, Neema, in Zanzibar. Previously, Mon has expressed her wish to be reborn as an animal to Amid by saying that the only reason we would not want that relates to how badly humans treat animals. Reincarnated as a pet goat to a doting schoolgirl, Juwairiya, the spirit spends the days following Juwairiya and playing with her and her friends.
Midway through the film, director Lois Patiño ambitiously attempts to stretch the parameters of cinematic experience by asking the viewers to suspend their observation and retreat into the mind (or soul). The image-less interlude, in which the audience is led by auditory rather than visual sense, resembles the verses Amid reads to Mon about bardo (a liminal state between death and rebirth), where the soul would hear and feel erratic motions. In this way, we do not follow Mon’s spirit through the limbo, but it feels as though we are in the bardo. More specifically, we are given the chance to imagine our own spiritual vestibules instead of occupying Patiño’s version. While we are all in one place and listening to the same sound, each one of us is in a different mental space. By being invited to such a metaphysical realm, one could not help but reflect inwardly. This ‘intimate and meditative experience’ is what Patiño, as a film director, intended to create in his work, as noted in his director’s note. As such, Samsara (2023) becomes more than a film to watch; rather, it offers a meditative activity for the audience.
Moreover, Samsara (2023) manages to have a perfectly balanced grounding yet transcending effect. Although the film’s main concern is to render an otherworldly experience, it anchors the viewers to the worldly existence. Scenes of teenage monks frolicking in Kuang Si waterfall, school children running around, and women working on a seaweed farm, among other scenes, delight the viewers with colourful slices of life. Patiño categorises the film as a fiction documentary on his website: indeed, there are elements of fiction or even fantasy. Regardless, the mortal realms the film depicts are a vivid documentation of human existence. In Laos, young monk Ba En and Amid share their aspirations: the former wants to study computer science at a university, while the latter plans to become a rapper. In Zanzibar, female seaweed farmers express their frustration over their underappreciated work. Further, the earthly topics represented through the student monks’ social studies class and Zanzabri seaweed farmers’ talk about water contamination counterbalance the spiritual undertones running across the film.
Overall, Samsara (2023) is a visually delicious, structurally intriguing, and textually profound film that offers a chance to live, die, and be reborn in the theatre. The ideal way to experience the fiction documentary would be to go in blindly, as I did. When the screen told me to close my eyes in the middle of the movie, I was not expecting myself to go into meditation. As such, the bardo interlude left a unique impression on me. Although this advice defies the point of my review, I suggest you go into the cinema without any expectations, even if you are familiar with the content.
Samsara is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 26th January.
Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor