Credit: Señor y Señora
by Ryan Akler-Bishop Featured Film

Samsara — Lois Patiño [Berlinale ’23 Review]

February 24, 2023

If the camera produces an impression of a visualizable and material reality, how can the apparatus of cinema stand in for an abstract and intangible truth? Can the interplay of light and dark embody a world beyond visual understanding? Samsara — which refers to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth — is the latest from New Galician Cinema director Lois Patiño. Unlike the director’s early catalog of landscape films, Samsara is replete with both bodies and faces. Yet despite this newfound emphasis on human/animal presences, Patiño’s primary focus isn’t the physical domain of the body. Rather, he’s a filmmaker of the invisible: a chronicler of the soul.

Samsara is a triptych of sorts, taking viewers from Laos through the Bardo to Zanzibar. In Laos, a boy regularly reads The Tibetan Book of the Dead to a dying old woman. She embraces the text as preparation for her reincarnation. The boy spends a day with teenage monks from the local monastery, boating out to a nearby waterfall. It’s an afternoon of fleeting, ethereal moments; the monks listen to a rap song on an iPhone, one has an expressionistic dream beneath a riverside tree, and there’s a Kuleshov’ed-together encounter between a monk and an elephant. When the boy returns, the old woman is dead. Her soul journeys through the afterlife. Then, she’s reborn as a goat in Zanzibar, living among a community of seaweed farming women. There, she re-learns the world in a new body.

Shot by two separate DPs, each of Samsara’s three passages realize a distinct aesthetic language. The first section in Laos is lensed by Mauro Herce, and it’s packed with expressionistic imagery, superimpositions, vibrant color palettes, and a somnambulant ambiance. The section opens with a lengthy 360-degree pan around a monastery, packed with young Buddhist monks in the midst of meditation. The slow and consistent camera movement is matched by its sounds: a loud choir of chirping cicadas. In this section, the film’s serenity and consistency induces a comforting trance-like state.

Samsara’s midsection arrives with a direct address: text implores us to close our eyes, and leave them shut until we hear silence. What follows is, essentially, a flicker film. Bullets of color (hopefully an epilepsy warning accompanies future screenings) flash across the screen, piercing through the closed sheath of our eyelids. We’re left with an approximation of an image: the hazy refuge of a frame that survives the eyes’ blockade. The images feel internal, rather than exterior projections beamed into our sensorium. All the while, an evolving soundscape floods through. The noises encompass dialogue, music, waves: sonic “imagery” as we migrate from one body to another. In the Bardo, Patiño imagines an aesthetics of liminality as the film’s form approximates (rather than literalizes) the experience of a soul’s transit through this space. He strives to use the language of cinema (a medium whose building blocks are visualized, moving images) to evoke an invisible, inarticulable, and disembodied experience.

The woman is reborn in Zanzibar as a goat. Here, the images — now lensed by Jessica Sarah Rinland — are more material. They’re rooted in a sensory relationship to the physical world, in contrast with Herce’s tendency toward visual representations of the abstract and immaterial. This section also foregrounds an animal subjectivity. Inevitably, the film recalls the similarly anti-anthropomorphic work of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (or, more recently, Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO). However, whereas Bresson’s form is rooted in the movements of an animal’s body as it’s exchanged from between parties, Patiño’s approach follows the transience of a soul.

It’s not an unimpeachable film; an on-the-nose, expository dialogue in the penultimate scene dilutes some of its wonder. There’s also a twinge of exoticism to Patiño’s ethnography, more intent on concealing any imprint of a colonial gaze than deconstructing it. But in the gleeful whirlwind of Samsara’s aesthetic experience, the film resonates mostly inward. It’s a confrontation with the self, our own relationship to spectatorship, and a testament to the range of experiences cinema can simulate. Patiño’s triumphantly transcendent work produces an aesthetic language in dialogue with unseen mechanisms of the universe, daring to use cinema to evoke worlds outside the bounds of photographable images.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.