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In Buddhist philosophy, the word ‘samsara’ refers to the nature of life as a cycle of deaths and rebirths. It is this process that Lois Patiño evokes to breathtaking effect in Samsara, a film with a triptych structure that follows a soul from the body of Mon (Simone Milavanh), an elderly woman in Laos, and later into the form of a baby goat in Zanzibar. It is a voyage that probes spiritual and cinematic boundaries to create a deeply moving meditation on what happens after we die and is, at times, a transcendent experience.
Around the halfway point of Samsara, some on-screen text explains that we will now follow the soul of Mon into the bardo, the liminal state between bodies – a 15-minute sequence that served as the film’s genesis for Patiño. We must close our eyes for this section of the film, and the effect of the sensory symphony that unfolds is contemplative and genuinely transformational. Audio landscapes meld into one another, suggestive of shifting earthly environs and those far more ineffable. The light show – a combination of flashes and glowing colour fields, all viewed through closed eyelids – evokes the dappled sunlight of deep forest as easily as the heavenly grandeur of the beyond. The sequence is among the most enrapturing cinematic gambits of recent years.
Of course, the majority of Samsara’s runtime occurs in the mortal realm. Patiño worked with different cinematographers for each section – both filmmakers in their own right – and the result is two distinct chapters representing these different incarnations. The scenes in Laos were shot by Mauro Herce and have their own otherworldly quality. Centring on the occupants of a Buddhist temple, this segment is focused on the achievement of enlightenment and Herce’s luminous cinematography emphasises its dreamlike aspects. Here novices dream of elephants in the forest and reflect on joining the monkhood, while Mon approaches the end of one life by preparing to voyage to the next.
Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Zanzibar footage is far more tactile. Rinland’s own films have often focused on the labour of the hands, which reappears here. A young girl Juwairiya (Juwairiya Idrisa Uwesu) cares for the family’s pet goat, Neema – the reincarnated Mon – while the women of the community farm seaweed. This section constructs a more concrete, corporeal world. The juxtaposition between the two halves – the philosophical and political, the metaphysical and the material – seems to celebrate the breadth of lived experience. The passage between them allows us to marvel at cinema’s miraculous capacity for the transportive and sublime.