The very word of the title, Himalaya, evokes both exotic Eastern cultures and landscapes of impossibly high, snow-topped mountains. Both are offered generously in this visually stunning film made by Eric Valli, a Frenchman who has lived in Nepal since 1983. Valli’s film grows out of his prior work as a documentarian; it is rooted in the culture and way of life of Tibetan people in an isolated region of the Nepalese Himalayas. Valli’s fictional drama both grows out of and is enriched by his documentarian’s instinct to document the lives of these mountain people who seem at once primitive and remarkably sophisticated.
At the center of the story is a caravan. The mountain people cannot raise enough grain to feed their community throught the long winter. With a herd of yaks carrying sacks of salt, they trek to more temperate lowlands in the South where they can trade the salt for grain. It is a journey of survival and, of course, a metaphor for the journey of life.
The tribal chief is brought back to the village dead and his father, Tinle, aging, proud, and stubborn ("Talking to him is like trying to stop the snow from falling."), unfairly blames Karma, who not only wants to lead the next caravan, but bucks tradition by suggesting they leave earlier than the date set by the local lamas through astrological divination. Tinle insists on leading the caravan and the village splits, some traveling with Karma, some with Tinle. Rivalry between generations, the opposition of tradition and innovation, superstition and common sense, youth and experience–all become part of the texture of this journey across the mountains.
Valli uses non-professional actors from the region which, on the one hand, lends a certain authenticity to the characters, but, on the other hand, results in a quality of dramatic artificiality. While the sincerity of both the actors and the filmmaker is beguiling and at moments sufficiently disarming to allow a suspension of disbelief, the unevenness and frequent awkwardness of the performances keeps the viewer a step removed.
Valli is more successful at the documentary elements of the film. He offers fascinating glimpses of the day to day life of these people–funeral rituals, the protected life of the Buddhist monastery (where Tinle’s other son, Norbou, is a priest), strange mixtures of Buddhism and superstition, tribal customs, and the ever-present, long-haired, horned yaks, stirring up clouds of dust.
And then, of course, there are the awesome vistas of those snow-capped peaks, of a mountain lake, of the golden grain growing in the high valley.
There are moments of natural grace that suggest what Valli strove for in the overall film. At his father’s bidding, Norbou leaves the monastery to join the caravan. When he first arrives home, his reunion with his mother is beautifully rendered. Her first response at seeing her son is emotional, but she contains it and it is not initially expressed. A bit later, they greet each other with the traditional touching of foreheads. It is a genuinely felt moment, the depth of the mother-son tie convincingly portrayed.
Tinle’s grandson is played by young Karma Wangiel and he is a charmer. In fact, all the actors are appealing as personalities, if not accomplished as thespians.
Himalayais an ambitious film with much to admire; it falls short, however, of delivering the convincing drama that the material suggests it might have been.