Directed by Tibetan Buddhist lama Neten Chokling, the film covers the early life of renowned yogi Milarepa, who became a major Buddhist philosopher but, according to legend, began his career as a vengeful young sorcerer. Milarepa begins "in the Year of the Water Dragon," with the protagonist's birth (at the time he's named "Thopaga") to happy, wealthy villagers. When his father suffers an untimely death, Thopaga's aunt and uncle seize the family wealth and treat the in-laws like slaves.
By the time Thopaga (Gimyan Lodro) comes of age, his uncle refuses to return the young man's birthright. Thopaga's wrathful mother, Kargyen (Kelsang Chukie Tethong), tells her son, "If vengeance doesn't come soon, I will kill myself in your very presence." But hey, no pressure.
The combination of a melodramatic plot with spectacular locations and traditional customs can reap great dividends, like the way the Inuit adventure The Indian Runner presented an almost documentary-style portrait of ancient life in the Arctic. Unfortunately, nearly all of Milarepa's cast comes across as wooden and ineffectual, not just untrained, although Tethong displays a memorably fiery side.
Hindered by a deliberate pace and a limited special-effects budget, Milarepa nevertheless grows more compelling when Thopaga falls in with mystics who teach him to levitate boulders and summon destructive storms. The main character grows to believe that revenge causes more harm than good, although the completion of his spiritual journey won't be revealed until the sequel, scheduled for release in 2009.
Milarepa's narrative command doesn't really live up to its thematic intentions. However, at a time when movies such as Kill Bill celebrate revenge as being awesome, you can appreciate Milarepa's moral authority in condemning it.
Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint. 2 stars. Directed by Neten Chokling. Stars Gimyan Lodro, Kelsang Chukie Tethong. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Oct. 26. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.