PATHS OF THE SOUL, drama, not rated, in Tibetan with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts,
has many of the same elements as an Andrei Tarkovsky film: ravishing landscapes, lifelike rhythms, multiple characters, and spiritual clarity. A group of people from the village of Nyima decides to undertake the Buddhist “bowing pilgrimage” to the holy Tibetan capital, Lhasa. The rigorous pilgrimage of a thousand miles requires that the travelers prostrate their bodies on the ground after every few steps. The pilgrims wear leather aprons and wooden clapping blocks to protect their bodies and hands from the ground, but what will actually get them through the arduous journey is their jaw-dropping faith. Made documentary-style, without a script, this narrative-doc hybrid follows actual pilgrims over the course of a year, during which time both the crew members and the non-actors they filmed lived on the road.
Along the way we witness a birth, a death, and even the beginnings of a courtship. When a pregnant pilgrim goes into labor in the middle of the night, we fear she will have to give birth to her baby on the road. Instead, the pilgrims’ mini farm tractor, which pulls a wagon of supplies, transports her to the nearest clinic. Here, we are given as clear-eyed an account of childbirth, with its intense pains and quiet joys, as I have seen on film.
On another day, an accident causes the farm tractor to veer off the road and break down. Incredibly, this major setback does not deter the pilgrims. They abandon the engine and decide to manually push the wagon, which now contains their supplies and the baby, the rest of the way. What is remarkable from a Western perspective is that the pilgrims endure extreme hardship to cleanse their souls, yes, but they have, in large part, undertaken this pilgrimage for the welfare of all living beings. It is notable that a Chinese filmmaker, Yang Zhang
directed this sensitive movie about the spiritual life of Tibetans. According to Zhang, the film “tries to look for the energy given by beliefs.” Cross-cultural pollination between the Chinese and the Tibetans is still rare, and this film is a lighthouse that shows how illuminating such collaboration can be, not only for those in the region, but also for the rest of us. — Priyanka Kumar