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Aside from Buddhists, the only people likely to know the name Milarepa are film cultists and Beastie Boys fans. The 11th-century Tibetan quester was the subject of a 1974 Italian flick, and the Milarepa Foundation is the group that benefited from the Beasties’ late-’90s Tibetan Freedom concerts. Now a new audience has an opportunity to meet the mystical seeker, via Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint. But this earnest piece of hagiography can’t be the best way to make his acquaintance.
It’s not that the story, or at least the first part of it, is arcane. Milarepa, then known as Thöpaga, is born to a rich man, Mila-Dorje-Senge, in a small Himalayan town. Dad dies when the boy and his younger sister are still young, and life changes drastically for them and their mother, Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethtong). Mila-Dorje-Senge entrusts his fortune to his brother, with the provision that it be transferred to Thöpaga when he grows up. But Uncle Gyaltsen (Gonpo) and his greedy wife strip the household, leaving Kargyen and her kids in poverty. When Thöpaga (now played by Jamyang Lodro) comes of age, Kargyen throws a big party to celebrate the return of the boy’s inheritance. Uncle Gyaltsen refuses to part with it, however, and the craven guests wordlessly slip away.
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A bitter Kargyen decides to send Thöpaga to study black magic, and the young man dutifully leaves his agreeable fiancée and heads further into the mountains. He soon finds the perfect (and perfectly named) traveling companion: Dharma (Jamyang Nyima), who can literally befog men’s minds, not to mention sprint faster than a cheetah on crystal meth. (At this point, an unserious-minded viewer may recall Eric Idle’s bit as “the world’s fastest runner” in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.) Dharma turns out to be the son of a master sorcerer (Orgyen Tobgyal) who teaches Thöpaga levitation, invisibility, and, in an advanced course, how to destroy your hometown by summoning a lightning storm. That’s just what the young man does, but he regrets it as soon as he sees the suffering he’s caused. He seeks refuge from an angry mob in a small Buddhist temple, where a monk tells him that “your enemies arise from your mind.” That doesn’t seem to be exactly true, but it sets the future Milarepa on the path to enlightenment, which will be covered in the movie’s sequel, due in 2009.
The second part may turn out to be interesting, but this stiff, artless prologue doesn’t promise a big finish. Director Neten Chokling, who co-wrote the screenplay with Tenzing Choyang Gyari, is a Buddhist lama and first-time filmmaker who knows his Himalayan locations. The dramatic Spiti Valley, on the Indian side of the Tibetan border, serves as Milarepa’s principal attraction, easily upstaging the script and cast. Chokling is a plodding storyteller who lacks the lightness of Khyentse Norbu, the cinema-pioneering lama who made 1999’s The Cup and 2003’s Travelers and Magicians. (In the former movie, the early-teen Lodro played a soccer-loving novice with much more charm than he shows as Milarepa.) Like any good Buddhist teacher, Norbu understands the importance of parable. That’s a lesson Chokling seems to have missed in Lama 101. He approaches Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint as if it were a soccer-star biopic.