WITHOUT A VISA to visit the timeless remoteness of a pristine village high in the Dolpo region of Nepal? Why not see a movie about it instead? Certainly you could do far worse than Himalaya—a French-produced saga of salt caravans and dynastic succession—as far as travelogues are concerned. The CinemaScope photography is gorgeous (it won a C鳡r award), and the faces of the native Tibetan cast are as weather-lined and real as those on any tourist brochure. For Westerners in search of a latter-day Shangri-La, Himalaya provides some of the same Lost Horizon-style idealization of exotic Buddhist culture—without romanticizing the hardships underlying such spirituality.
directed by Eric Valli with Thinlen Lhondup and Gurgyon Kyap runs April 27-May 10 at Egyptian
Fittingly, then, Himalaya begins with a death, which deprives town chief Thinle (Thinlen Lhondup) of a son and successor. To pounding drums, monks ritually dismember his heir's corpse for greedy vultures to devour. Framed by snow-capped peaks, the birds circle in the thin mountain air—displaying the sensitive eye of director Eric Valli, a French photojournalist who has long lived among the Dolpo people. Later, as women rhythmically knead cloth in dye, he again lets the power of ancient practices speak more eloquently than any script.
Valli's story is simplicity itself: Aggrieved, bitter Thinle blames maverick Karma (Gurgyon Kyap) for his son's death. Worse, his grandson (Karma Wangiel) and daughter-in-law (Lhakpa Tsamchoe of Seven Years in Tibet) are both taken with the dashing, long-haired yak herder—who dares to defy tradition! In this fundamental opposition to Thinle's old, set ways, Himalaya signals its mythic ambitions. There's not a trace of modern life to be seen in the village; only when a glass bottle appears mid film are we jolted into the present. Even though Valli throws in a few nods to Westerns—particularly Howard Hawks' Red River—his yak drive is equally intended to recall Homer. Ornery Thinle and Karma struggle for clan leadership by leading rival yak caravans bearing the salt they trade for grain in the lowlands; it's a race with life-and-death consequences. Yet, as Thinle's second son, a lama, counsels him: "Things will work themselves out."
In other words, acceptance, submission, and open-mindedness will overcome petty feuds and rivalries. Himalaya can't escape—doesn't seek to escape—such platitudes. Rather, it embraces and celebrates them, making the film both overdetermined and affecting. The inevitable outcome hasn't got an ounce of surprise to it, nor does the plot ever take an unexpected turn, but who says destiny has to be dramatic?