One could argue that Werner Herzog's "Wheel of Time" is not only a film about Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, but also a meditation in its own rite.
Herzog, best known for iconic fiction films such as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo," as well as the recent documentary "Grizzly Man," wrote, directed, narrated and even shot some of "Wheel of Time," the 2003 film that will be making its Buffalo debut as part of the Tibetan Film Festival in the Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre.
Thursday's showing of "Wheel of Time," paired with the more newsy "Devotion and Defiance," is the second of seven events in the festival, which is part of local preparation for the Dalai Lama's visit to the University at Buffalo in September.
The pairing works because Herzog doesn't give much background in his film on the "Kalachakra Initiation" that he is filming. Nor does he make reference to the conflict between China and the Dalai Lama, the highest Buddhist spiritual leader, who fled Tibet and the Chinese Communists in 1959. The International Campaign for Tibet's "Devotion and Defiance" takes care of that side of things and allows the viewer to experience Herzog's sense of being there with a bit more context.
Herzog is more concerned with capturing the experience of the Kalachakra, where some half a million Buddhist monks come together to meditate and for monks to be initiated. The event centers around the creation of the sand mandala, or depiction of the "wheel of time."
Although Herzog includes some interviews with the Dalai Lama and some apparently previously unfilmed rituals, the filmmaker isn't really interested in explaining any more than he has to. Instead, he adapts the techniques of cinema verite and ethnographic filmmakers where he can, minimizing narration and trying to shoot telling detail.
Herzog would rather have you experience the culture than understand it, on the chance that may result in a deeper understanding on an emotional level.
Thus, there are long stretches in the film without narration, shots of pilgrims circling Mount Kailash, prostrating themselves endlessly, shots of monks creating the Kalachakra mandala, young monks running through the crowds to bring the elders their tea and others making huge vats of food to feed the masses, the crowd milling about during gift-giving.
The shooting is beautiful, capturing what to most Americans is an alien environment (Mount Kailash appears as plantless as much of the Afghan landscape on the TV news -- only at a higher altitude).
Herzog captures a culture that's equally alien, with not a television or computer to be seen.
Be forewarned, though: The pacing of the film, as well as Herzog's narration, is as calm and measured as the chanting of a mantra. If it has been a long day, Herzog's meditation could carry you into that state called sleep.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
WHEEL OF TIME
DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes
THE LOWDOWN: Documentary on Tibetan Buddhists and Dalai Lama gathering in India, and later in Austria, for rituals.