Wheel of Time(Wellspring, 10.25.2005)
In Werner Herzog's documentary Wheel of Time, the Dalai Lama affably notes that, while Buddhism posits that Mount Kailash is the center of the universe, he finds that it's located within each person. Herzog's film seems to reflect that principle as, instead of giving us a broad Buddhism lecture about the theology behind two initiation ceremonies, he immerses us in the lives of their participants, from their pained pilgrimages to their ritualized performance of the sublime and the trivial.
Wheel of Time takes us from Bodh Gaya, India to Graz, Austria, as Herzog documents two very different Kalachakra festivals in which Tibetan Buddhist monks became ordained while throngs of others fervently worship. Central to each festival is the construction and destruction of the Kalachakra Mandala (or wheel of time), which is meticulously made with colored sands and represents Buddhist lessons, deities, and the impermanence of life.
Herzog took on the project as a Buddhist neophyte, but he also converted to Catholicism as a teenager and his film conveys both his curiosity and respect for his subjects' unblinking reverence. He serves as a one man crew in the India section, operating a tiny digital camera as he wafts through the processions and introduces us to a man who traveled on foot to the festival for 3 and a half years and over 3000 miles -- prostrating in prayer every few steps -- from such a remote area that two translators are required to convey his devotion.
Herzog is perhaps the perfect director to document this journey, as he once walked from Munich to Paris to visit an ailing friend. Also, as in Grizzly Man, he displays a singular ability to capture the simultaneous rapture and indifference of nature as he contrasts images of the snow capped splendor of Mount Kailash with the terse observation that several Buddhists die each year re-tracing the path Siddhartha took in becoming the Buddha.
What's less clear is whether what Herzog calls the "ecstatic truth" enhances or undermines the material. Herzog feels that deeper truths are achieved through "fabrication, imagination, and stylization" and here he does so by opening the doc with a self-written quotation he falsely attributes to German mystic Thomas a Kempis and closing it with a staged scene of a Buddhist bodyguard in an emptied convention hall, which Herzog sees as the perfect Buddhist metaphor for emptiness.
This 80-minute film is presented is an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound that can't quite support a soundtrack highlighted by some Nepalese melodies. There are no special features, nor even a subtitle option to help you decipher Herzog's mellifluous, yet thickly German, accented narration. -- Colin Miller