I recently saw A Separation, a film that recently won the Academy Award for best foreign film. I don’t review films on this blog, but it seemed to me to illustrate so well, what samsara is all about. Samsara is a complex concept, but my favourite explanation draws on its etymological root, the wheel. Samsara conceptualizes a constant turning of a wheel of suffering that spins you up and down. It’s a wholistic image that asks you to think about an entire integrated system of suffering rather than to focus on one episode or series of episodes.

Both the zen tradition I follow and the yoga sutras I’ve read pinpoint misperception as the radical source of the spinning of samsara. The idea here is to train your mind to see through your perceptions and dissolve them down. The thing about perceptions and attachments are, when we speak about them in the abstract, they can seem like such negative, or at best, incomplete but useful things. But what if your attachment, your way of seeing the world is more than simply useful? What if it is the foundation upon which you rest your own integrity?

The characters in A Separation are thrown into challenging life events, but the confluence of these events with each character’s own value system (which they cling to to varying degrees), amplifies their suffering and creates a samsaric, systemic vortex of dukha, each character a spoke in a churning wheel of tragedy. It’s difficult to describe without spoilers, but it is simply stunning and incredibly difficult to watch. In the words of my friend, “You feel such compassion for each character, but you’re also so angry at them at one point.”

The great thing about A Separation is that each character has freedom of choice, but their perceptions have made it such that they feel as if they have no choice, and each is compelled to make decisions that add greater velocity to the samsaric wheel of suffering that they create and share and are trapped in together. At various points in the film, there are exit points, ways to end the suffering, but in the end, no party is willing to give up what is basically their core set of values, be it personal pride, religious beliefs, parental love, insistence on the truth, etc. You can look at these things, the very things that make us human, and see how, if you were in a similar position, you might be willing to suffer and even to cause others to suffer, so that such things are not compromised. And as such, the wheel continues to spin against all of them…

The ending is bittersweet, but does, in my opinion, show a character who is able to make a choice. This choice will also cause suffering, but it is a different kind of suffering because it is one born of a conscious decision, and not one taken because one cannot even conceive of any other alternative.

I hope that my description hasn’t turned you off the film. Especially because this is a very narrow reading of the film which is also highly political. Highly recommended, and for me, this ties with Enter the Void for best film of 2011.