Originally published in 1922, German author Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha later became a touchstone for the counterculture generation. A poetic exploration of one man’s lifelong search for meaning, the story offers a simple but deep parable about looking past the pleasures of the flesh to find fulfillment in oneness with the universe, a theme that resounded mightily with seekers in the ’60s and ’70s. One such seeker, filmmaker Conrad Rooks, tackled the thankless task of bringing Siddhartha to the screen, even though the project was doomed from the start, commercially speaking; exacerbating the fact that spiritual journeys rarely sell popcorn, the book is so beloved that no movie could live up to impossible expectations.
However, viewed by someone who isn’t a member of the novel’s fan base, Siddhartha is an earnest and quite beautiful film. Rooks’ screenplay (to which Paul Mayersberg and Natasha Ullman contributed) doesn’t try to communicate the depth and nuance of the source material. Rather, the script merely catalogs things that happen to the lead character, Siddhartha. Building from this base, Rooks uses intoxicating cinematography and music to create a ruminative atmosphere that contextualizes narrative events. So, while devoted fans of the novel might scoff that Rooks’ adaptation is oversimplified, another way to look at the movie is to say that Rooks’ adaptation is purified: He whittled the book down to an essence even casual viewers can grasp. Whether this approach honors Hesse’s book is for others to say, but there’s no disputing the film’s strongest virtues.
First and foremost, the cinematography by frequent Woody Allen/Ingmar Bergman collaborator Sven Nykvist is rapturous. Shooting at vibrant locations throughout India, Nykvist captures subtle textures of light, from the way sunbeams dance across the surface of a river at dusk to the way a canopy of trees dilutes morning sunlight in a dense forest. The film’s atmosphere is so evocative that viewers can almost feel branches crunching underfoot while characters walk. Few movies offer such a potent sense of place, and for this particular story, which involves a man learning how to escape the mortal plane, intense physicality is essential. The music, by an assortment of Indian musicians, is equally involving, with pulsing rhythms and undulating melodies working their way into viewers’ brains like welcome guests. At its best moments, Siddhartha is hypnotic.
That said, the performances have a perfunctory quality. Leading man Shashi Kapoor is handsome and sincere, just as leading lady Simi Garewal is overpoweringly seductive. However, the actors mostly read their lines in monotones, delivering such flat performances that Kapoor’s lone crying scene, which occurs toward the end of the picture, is a startling disruption of the emotional status quo. An argument could be made that quiet acting suits this story about characters learning to hear inner voices, but that’s a stretch. Still, Siddhartha is compelling despite its imperfections.