An idealistic young teacher heads to a poverty-stricken area of the Himalayas to change the world in “Kathmandu Lullaby,” a film that shares its protag’s good intentions but ticks off too many predictable boxes. Brimming with the social concern that defines helmer Iciar Bollain’s work, the script nevertheless fails to transform that passion into stimulating drama, repping a misstep for Bollain and her co-writer Paul Laverty, a longtime Ken Loach-collaborator. Even so, the helmer’s international reputation, enhanced by her previous pic, “Even the Rain,” should still generate fest screenings and offshore arthouse play.
Pic is loosely based on a true story. Laia (Veronica Echegui) is a volunteer at a school in Kathmandu, where education is basically a matter of dull repetition and corporal punishment. Driven by a desire to improve the kids’ lives, Laia wants to set up a special class where she’s in charge of the teaching, but she’s hampered at every turn by cultural differences, the caste system, bureaucratic obstacles and corruption. Most of what Laia learns comes via her co-teacher and friend Sharmila (Saumyata Bhattarai).
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Laia’s visa expires, and in order to stay, she marries local man Tshiring (Norbu Tsering Gurung), who’s a little more forward-thinking than some of his countrymen, although the edgy early scenes between them are nicely downbeat. Laia’s frustrations continue to pile up as one of the school’s star pupils is sold by her parents into prostitution in India, but ever defiant, the determined do-gooder decides to set up her own school.
As a docu-style exploration of injustices in one of the world’s poorest regions, “Kathmandu Lullaby” reps a decent primer. The questions it raises about how and what to teach kids are even more interesting, especially given the script’s implication that, not only in Kathmandu but in most Third World countries, education means keeping children as ignorant as possible about the things that matter.
All of which is fine, but rarely does the film catch fire as drama. Although Nepal is thankfully not presented as an “Eat Pray Love”-style backdrop to Laia’s personal journey, there’s something plodding and dutiful about the way the story proceeds from one catastrophe to another, while the Nepali characters are not given enough agency.
Echegui, a thesp who has yet to put a foot wrong, is up to scratch in a physically and emotionally draining role. But despite her best efforts, she cannot carry the weight alone, and the kind of complex central relationships that have driven Bollain’s best work are absent here; sparks fail to ignite between Laia and the ever-hesitant, quietly-spoken Tshiring, and the local thesps, mostly non-pros, sometimes feel underdirected. Inelegantly woven-in flashbacks reveal how Laia’s own unhappy upbringing in a religious school fueled her zeal for reform, though the skillful Echegui would have been more than capable of hinting at her character’s psychological issues without such explicit foregrounding.
Lenser Antonio Riestra lets the clear mountain light bring out a full range of startling color, and the endlessly fascinating street scenes are beautifully done, although the grim depictions of Kathmandu slum life are unlikely to impress the Nepalese tourist board. One breathtaking sequence, in which Laia and Tshiring visit Tshiring’s parents in their remote mountain village, reps the pic’s only concession to National Geographic-level imagery.
As often happens when Spanish thesps speak English, Echegui’s delivery is sometimes inappropriately stressed, so the dialogue may strike English-speaking auds as unnatural.