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samsara is both a travelogue and, whisper it, a cosmic mental journey. Its title refers to a karmic notion of rebirth, but this feature film by Lois Patiño, a Spanish director with an experimental pedigree, is more anchored in earthly realities than one might lead us to believe.
Exploring a porous border between documentary and fiction, samsara starts off looking like a leisurely news report about a Buddhist temple in Laos, then introduces a young man (Amid Keomany) who visits an elderly woman named Mon (Simone Milavanh). He reads to her extracts from Tibetan Book of the Dead in preparation for his imminent journey into the bardothe intermediate state between death and rebirth.
Mon expresses a desire to be reborn as an animal – and it is suggested that she gets her wish in a later section set in Zanzibar and focused on a young girl named Juwairiya (Juwairiya Idrisa Uwesu). Between these sections, a 15-minute interlude invites us to close our eyes and let bursts of color filter through our eyelids while listening to a soundscape mixing ambient music, speech and various cacophony. This sequence, essentially our own journey to bardoachieves an immersive experience as intense as any Imax digital extravaganza (samsara is shot on 16mm film by two cinematographers, Mauro Herce and Jessica Sarah Rinland).
Patiño’s film is by turns aesthetic, even abstract (his Laos section is a rhapsody in orange, monks’ robes with an intense filter on a seascape) and highly material (close-ups of gelatinous algae, vivid textiles of the robes of Zanzibar).
While you could see samsara as being essentially mystical, it is also indirectly a film about cinema: the advice given to Mon to let his soul wander freely in the bardo could tell us how to be receptive moviegoers. Although made by a globe-trotting European director, this hauntingly strange film never feels touristy – it simply connects us to a channel of discovery of the mind.
In UK cinemas from January 26