Based on the story of revered Tibetan Buddhist saint Milarepa (1043-1123), who renounced the violence and vengeance of his early life to become a holy man, lama Neten Chokling's directing debut ends on a frustrating spiritual cliff-hanger.
Thopaga (Jamyang Lodro), who will eventually become the saint Milarepa (Mila is his family name, and "repa" refers to the simple cotton clothing he adopted when he started his journey to enlightenment), is the only child of a wealthy family and grows up in a small mountain village. His father, Mila (Tenpa Choephel), falls ill when Thopaga is a child, so he gives his estate to his brother, Gyaltsen (Gonpo), and instructs him to manage it until Thopaga is of marriageable age. Unfortunately, Uncle Gyaltsen proves a dishonorable man: He and his wife (Tsamchoe) appropriate everything, then mistreat Thopaga and his mother, Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethong), starving them and forcing them to work all day while their relatives spend the day playing dice. When Thopaga wants to marry his lovely sweetheart, Zesay (Tashi Choedon Gyari), Kargyen pleads with her brother-in-law to do the right thing. He refuses and is supported by most of the villagers. Destitute and humiliated, Kargyen sends her son away to learn sorcery, with an eye to taking revenge on the entire village. Fate seems to suggest that this is Thopaga's destiny: On the first night of his journey he falls in with Dharma Wangchuk (Jamyang Niyima), who turns out to be the son of Yongton Trogyal (Orgyen Tobgyal), a master of the magical arts. Thopaga proves an apt pupil, but he eventually learns that violence begets violence and degrades the spirit.
Shot in northern India and crewed by Buddhist monks, Chokling's film is handsome and features both strikingly naturalistic performances and more flashy special effects than one would expect from a film about a Tibetan saint. But viewers who come in unaware that it's only the first part of Milarepa's story MILAREPA: PATH TO LIBERATION, which charts his path to sanctity, is scheduled for 2009 release are bound to be frustrated by the fact that it ends so abruptly. That said, it's unlikely that the film has a large audience outside those with some preexisting interest in and knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. Milarepa's story was also the subject of a 1974 film by Italian director Liliana Cavani; it immediately preceded her notorious THE NIGHT PORTER. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh