(Tibetan and Hindi dialogue)
The first feature film by a Bhutanese-born director, “The Cup” is a largely charming, simple and exceedingly small picture that looks set to travel the festival circuit by virtue of its offbeat subject matter, but whose most lasting home will be on specialized webs. Back-of-a-coaster vignette about a bunch of soccer-crazy Tibetan monks who rent a satellite dish to watch the 1998 World Cup final heralds a potential talent in Buddhist monk-turned-helmer Khyentse Norbu.
Set in a Tibetan monastery-in-exile in northern India, at the foot of the Himalayas, pic starts at a measured pace sketching the everyday life and rituals of the monks under the stern eye of their supervisor, Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), and the more beneficent rule of the monastery’s aging head, the Khempo. Two new arrivals from Tibet, Palden and the younger Nyima, sent by their family to receive a traditional Buddhist education, are inducted into the monastery, where the kids play around during prayer time and soccer is their secret passion.
Early scenes are a tad stiff, and the movie takes a while to establish a rhythm of its own, but for many Western viewers used to holier-than-thou portraits of Buddhist life such as “Kundun,” pic will serve as a refreshing introduction to the more human, looser side of the religion and its practitioners.
Palden and Nyima’s introduction to monastic life comes through two youngsters , Lodo (Neten Chokling) and Orgyens (Jamyang Lodro) — the latter wearing a “Ronaldo” soccer shirt — who shave and dress the newcomers and share their passion for soccer. A stint in the kitchens after being caught watching a game on TV one night does nothing to dampen the kids’ enthusiasm.
Guts of the picture emerge an hour in, when the young monks, desperate to watch the France vs. Brazil final, request permission of the Khempo to rent a sat dish. Geko, who’s revealed as a closet soccer fan himself, supports their cause.
There’s an almost Ealing comedy-style flavor to the movie’s final half-hour as the monks struggle to put together the cash and transport the dish home, and it’s in this section that the pic exerts its charm after an OK but unremarkable start. (Movie could really have been done in an hour, rather than at feature length.)
Helmer Khyentse Norbu, who studied film in New York and made the current item via an Australian company, draws generally good perfs from the younger members of his cast, especially Jamyang Lodroas the argumentative, streetwise Orgyens, and has a sharp, unromantic eye for the realities of monastic life. But dialogue sequences, particularly between the elders, at times lack a natural flow.
Technically, the picture is solid, and has clearly benefited from the know-how of its Aussie behind-camera contribs.