Close Your Eyes
By Michael Sicinski

Dir. Lois Patiño, Spain, Bendita Film Sales

Samsara, the latest from Galacian filmmaker Lois Patiño, is both expansive and intimate. Though split into two halves depicting people and landscapes that are nearly 5,000 miles apart, the film weaves them together as though just two panels in a massive global quilt, threaded with cinematic light. Inasmuch as there is a narrative explanation for its radical shift in character and locale, Samsara attributes it to reincarnation, but the film is neither fantastical nor exoticist. Rather, it regards spiritual matters as objective facts, merely one facet of existence among many. The film is frank about its desire to explore cultures that are not Patiño's own—specifically Laotian Buddhism and the seaweed harvesters of coastal Tanzania. Yet forgoing any touristic impulse, Patiño takes his cues from filmmakers such as Peter Hutton and especially Mark LaPore, charting not only the people and places before him but also his fundamental distance from those environments.

The first half is set in Laos, where we follow a young man by the name of Amid (Amid Keomany). He is not a member of the local monastery but seems to just enjoy hanging out with monks. The saffron of their robes is the dominant color in this segment, a tone Patiño frequently juxtaposes with the jungle landscape and gently turbulent bodies of water. Amid has also volunteered to help an elderly woman, Mon (Toumor Xiong), prepare to die, by reading to her from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In these segments, Amid explains to Mon what she will encounter when she is separated from her body, temporarily stranded in her world as a ghost. Before experiencing her reincarnation, she must pass through the Samsara, a kind of phenomenological limbo, where she will be transformed.

In this first segment, Patiño manipulates the image whenever someone is asleep. He uses stark color filters and superimposed B-roll imagery, often to suggest that the natural world moves all on its own regardless of the physical presence of human beings. In his most frequent intervention, Patiño layers in transparent, upward-moving scrolls that depict Buddhist precepts, artworks that resemble jeweled mosaics. In the introduction to the brief segment of the film following Mon’s death, Patiño combines a shot of a moving river with a blue and gold mosaic of figures on a boat, preparing for the journey to the next world.

Patiño displays an onscreen text that explains that the film will follow her into her next form. “Mon’s spirit is going to travel through the Bardo.—The Intermediate Reality—Thanks to the book she will know to guide herself. We will go along with her. To make the trip, we must close our eyes.” For about ten minutes, Samsara goes dark, but this darkness is frequently pierced by brightly colored flashes and flickers. Patiño is borrowing the specialized cinematic language of folks like Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, and especially Paul Sharits. These pulses of color are quite beautiful, making the most of Patiño’s employment of Kodak film stock. At the same time, Samsara uses these avant-garde techniques for semi-narrative ends. These jabs of light can in fact penetrate the closed eyelid, and so Patiño is harnessing a kind of expanded-cinema energy for the purpose of spiritual examination. Like Sharits, Patiño uses cinematic light to gesture toward a higher state of consciousness.

In the second half of Samsara, we are transported to the beaches of Zanzibar, where a little girl (Juwairiya Idrisa Uwesu) witnesses the birth of a baby goat. This goat, we are to understand, is the receptacle for Mon’s spirit, and the kid becomes Juwairiya's constant companion. Juwairiya's mother (Mariam Vuaa Mtego) is a seaweed harvester, and she plans to purchase a pressing machine that will allow her and her women coworkers to dry and process the seaweed themselves. (It is made into a soap that is popular with tourists.) This section has a gently didactic aspect, since we closely observe the seaweed harvest, listening to the women talk about their low wages; see Juwairiya go to school; and meet a member of the Maasai tribe who talks about their traditions regarding the dead. By the end, Juwairiya’s goat has gone astray, and we hear her express her wish that she will be okay until they are reunited.

At first blush, the Laotian section of Samsara exhibits similarities to the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in its combination of ordinary activity and the monastic life, together with the depiction of the journey into the hereafter. Patiño’s occasional tendency to depict action in long shot, and the Laotian landscape itself, all both bear some resemblance to Apichatpong, although the generous distribution of robed monks throughout the frame also evokes Tsai Ming-liang. As for the Zanzibar section, its use of nonprofessional actors brings Abderrahmane Sissako to mind. In other words, the film’s radical experimentation is held together by two fairly recognizable art-film languages, the Southeast Asian film and the African film. Samsara was partly produced by the JEONJU Cinema Project, an initiative of the Jeonju International Film Festival that has helped fund auteur cinema from around the world. Much of Patiño’s previous work has been firmly grounded in the Galacian landscape, including his two previous features, Coast of Death (2013) and Red Moon Tide (2020), along with his astonishing 2015 short Night Without Distance. But then in 2022, Patiño turned to Tokyo Bay as the subject for The Sower of Stars, a tenebrous study of light on water.

Samsara continues Patiño’s interest in the world beyond Galacia, taking it even further. Not only does this film pivot from Laos to Tanzania, but also appears to make a stopover on an entirely different plane of existence. The film allows Patiño to weigh anchor and explore new worlds, and in so doing, his cinematic formalism undergoes several surprising changes. The director leaves behind his earlier style, in a manner analogous to the Buddhist precept of anatman (“non-self”). Samsara is a film about death and rebirth, the endless cycle of life and consciousness. In order to achieve this loose narrativization of the Buddhist belief in circular time, Patiño temporarily assumes three external, preexisting cinematic forms: we could reasonably call them “Apichatpong,” “Sharits,” and “Sissako.”

It is a bit of a hoary academic idea that there is nothing new, that there is only postmodern pastiche and upcycling. Samsara achieves something quite different. The film shows Patiño submitting to the requirements of the material (and immaterial) lives before his camera, rather than shaping them in accordance with his own vision. This is rather extraordinary. After all, artistic authorship of any kind relies on a significant presumption: the singularity of the ego. Samsara finds Patiño diving into self-erasure as a uniquely creative gesture, leaping into the aesthetic void. This probably doesn’t jibe with a film business that stakes its claim on the easily identifiable signature style. Samsara remains open to influence, shifting mood, an ability to allow the Other to become indistinguishable from the Self. It calls to mind the old joke about the Buddhist and the hot dog vendor. With Samsara, Patiño truly says, "Make me one with everything.”

Samsara plays at Metrograph Friday, May 31 and Saturday, June 2. The film screened Sunday, March 17, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.