Paths of the Soul
Directed by Zhang Yang
Through May 19 at MoMA
Twelve hundred kilometers is a long way to walk. But it’s an especially daunting distance when you have to prostrate yourself on the ground every few seconds, as do the subjects of Paths of the Soul, a stirring pseudo-doc that tags along with a group of Buddhist Tibetans, young and old, on a months-long pilgrimage to the holy city of Lhasa. Cars regularly pass the trekking neighbors as they dive to the tarmac in prayer. At the end of the day, they set up camp right next to the road. All the while, the crisp high-altitude light disperses through the clouds and onto the snow-tipped Himalayas.
The Chinese director Zhang Yang gestures toward a few character-based narrative arcs: For instance, the village drunk swears off the bottle for the entirety of the trip, and a woman goes into labor en route. But Paths of the Soul (soon to move on to playdates outside the city) is ultimately less interested in any individual drama than in offering a portrait of constant communal work in the service of personal spiritual fulfillment. Viewers acclimatized to the glacial pace of many formally similar films may find themselves wishing the camera lingered a bit longer over some of those (frankly astonishing) mountain panoramas. But after all, the movie, like its subjects, has to keep moving.