For the people of Varanasi – the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities – death is a blessing. Stretching along the banks of the river Ganges, Varanasi is a place where devout Hindus go to die in the hope of achieving moksha: freedom from the endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara). ‘Death hotels’ provide a home for those in wait: from the elderly or dying to some who are in good health when they check in and spend half a lifetime waiting for their salvation. For such healthy devotees, the promise of going ‘directly to God’ and a peaceful death make living in a death hotel an essential aspect of their being, even if it means leaving family and friends behind.
By the River grapples with profound and enduring questions: what does it mean to have a good death? Can the true meaning of life be understood only in dying? What does it mean to be forever in search of salvation – and what can that pursuit cost? Underlying the film’s artful visuals are ideas about the mechanics of suffering and of contentment. The result is an engrossing portrayal of a cultural tradition, as well as a powerful contemplation of the human condition.
- Olivia Hains