“Did you know that we keep on hearing after we’re dead?” The question comes up early into Lois Patiño’s Samsara but haunts the film from first shot to last, doubling as a précis of the multisensory feast this extraordinary journey through bodies, time, and space packs throughout. “Watching” is too restrictive a word for the kind of experience Patiño has arranged. Here’s the rare film that invites your whole body into its universe––one whose haptic, aural, olfactive pleasures are just as vivid as its visual riches. It’s a tale that unspools as a Heraclitean river: you cannot step into it twice, for it is not the same film, and you are no longer the same person.
Here’s where the river starts: in a Buddhist temple in present-day Laos, where teenage monk Be Ann (Toumor Xiong) crosses paths with a boy from a nearby village, Amid (Amid Keomany). Amid is on a mission: Mon (Simone Milavanh), a bedridden old lady, is approaching her final day, and he must read to her a Tibetan book of Buddhist scriptures. “It is a book that has to be read to you,” he explains to Be Ann, and indeed there’s something sacramental in this boy’s commitment to the cause. As the old woman gears up for her passing, Amid’s reading turns into a kind of training, a guide to navigate the Bardo, the transient state where one is neither fully dead nor alive, a limbo that predates your next reincarnation. “Travel without getting attached to anything,” he lovingly instructs Mon, “and wander in this intermediate existence.”
So will the film, eventually, but Patiño first beckons us into this luxuriant Laotian locale, paying justice to its textures without pandering to an orientalist gaze and reducing monks and temples to turgid postcards. A film in which ghosts are just as tangible a presence as the people that populate it, the specter of Apichatpong Weerasethakul hovers above Samsara’s every frame––less for geographical and thematic proximity than for how Patiño’s film similarly conjures its uncanny valley through sounds as much as images. Insects buzzing, water flowing, birds chanting litanies from the jungle; the film’s symphonies, natural or man-made (music and sound design are both courtesy of Xabier Erkizia) meld with Mauro Herce and Jessica Sarah Rinland’s cinematography in a way that makes for a transcendental experience.
Time and again images overlap and leak into each other, the frame searing red and yellow, an incandescent warmth that contrasts with the cobalt of the mosaic tesserae candying Be Ann’s temple. It’s all so entrancing that even the few shots of teenage monks scrolling aimlessly on their smartphones take on a contemplative aura, to say nothing of when Be Ann takes a nap in the jungle and gets lost inside. “We’ve been looking for you for a week!” Amid chides him. Is he joking? So credible is the blend of supernatural Patiño crafts you wouldn’t be able to tell; in these mystifying jungle segments Samsara exists in the same occult region of Picnic at Hanging Rock. And then.
And then Mon leaves this world, and so does the film. Patiño pauses the action––such as his meditative sprawl can be said to have any––and warns us, with a couple of intertitles, that Mon is now in the Bardo, and that “we will go with her.” It’s a long journey, and one that can only be made in perfect darkness. “So, close your eyes.” It’s difficult to account for what happened next, as I followed the instructions and joined a full house into a state of complete abandon. I suspect the experience will be different for each traveler, and that’s another source of Samsara’s allure, one of many reasons why I left the theater itching to talk about those ten, fifteen minutes I kept my eyelids shut and let the film carry me. Was it really that long? Time was suddenly out of joint. Lights kept flashing at my shuttered eyeballs, and the sounds swelled the theatre into a moving capsule. There was something primordial about them; they washed over you like the aural equivalent of amniotic liquid. There were human voices and an elephant trumpeting and flies buzzing and fires and storms and waves. It was terrifying, soothing, exhilarating.
Whatever you’ll make of Samsara’s descent into the otherworldly, the black screen that seizes it halfway through isn’t just a formal condition. Even as one heeds Patiño’s call and keeps their eyes closed, the screen still radiates a picture you have to populate for yourself. You’re drawn to the frame as something unstable, provocative, joltingly alive. Sounds do not just fill in a void, but converse with and challenge the darkness; your ears aren’t even aural tools anymore, but overactive, quivering muscles. You stop looking for clues into those sounds; instead those sounds end up shaping you. Is this what death feels like, or is it rather an invitation to change the way you respond to the world?
Here’s where the river winds up: the screen brightens again and finds you in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where a primary school girl, Juwairiya (Juwairiya Idrisa Uwesu) wakes up to the news that the family goat birthed a new kid. You need only remember Mon’s musings on human-animal reincarnations to put two and two together. But metempsychosis is only one of the several transformations Samsara is interested in. Patiño, who wrote the script with Garbiñe Ortega, is just as intrigued by the making of seaweed-based soap, which Juwairiya’s mother tends to with other ladies from the island. If Apichatpong is the key touchstone, Patiño’s focus on the relentless transmigration of all living things recalls Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte.
By the time Samsara jolts you out of the Bardo and resurrects you thousands of miles away from where it started, the film registers differently. Tactile moments––kids patting the goat’s back, women plucking and braiding seaweed––are so vivid you can almost feel fur and algae in your nerve-endings. Herce and Finland shot Samsara in 16mm, and even the little imperfections gracing the frame wind up making the film more tangible, lived-in, as if the medium itself was a breathing organism subject to the endless cycle of decay and rebirth.
I started writing this piece moments after leaving my Berlinale screening, where Samsara premiered in the Encounters sidebar. I am not entirely sure I am the same person I was when I first walked in. “The world opens to those who open up to it,” Amid prophesies early on, and for a film designed to reconfigure the way you respond to the things around you, the words amount to a mission statement. Now close your eyes.
Samsara premiered at Berlinale 2023.