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Shambhala

Young woman happily marries three brothers in rural Nepal, before a controversial pregnancy disrupts their fragile harmony - from the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival

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The action takes place at an unspecified time on the snowy Nepalese Himalayas. Pema (Thinley Lhamo) marries three brothers: Tashi (Tenzin Dalha), Karma (Sonam Topden) and the nine-year-old(ish) Dawa (Karma Wangyal Gurung). This is a society where polyandry is widely accepted and even encouraged, and so the community wholeheartedly celebrates the newly-wed. The priest explains that it is Pema’s duty to look after her three husbands. Not as easy as it may sound! Despite the unusual arrangement, these are social burdens that are placed solely upon women. Male polygamist societies placemore emphasis on sex: the male is expected to obtain pleasure from having multiple partners. In Shambhala, there is no hint of the nuptials (presumably no incestuous, paedophilic foursome take places – if you are looking these depraved thrills you should watch this movie instead). In other words, such polygamy has nothing to do with empowering women.

The most funny and heartwarming scenes take place in the first part of the movie, as Kawa attempts to assume his husband role with the confidence of an adult. He is clearly a child: short, and the hormones of adolescence haven’t kicking in yet, leaving his voice soft and squeaky. He indignantly yells to Pema “you are beating your husband”, after she slaps him for making a snide comment. Karma is a quiet and shy monk. Pema’s relationship to Kawa is mostly maternal, while her connection to Karma is aromantic. And that’s perhaps why the arrangement works, leaving Tashi with the undisputed role of the alpha husband.

The vast landscape provides a soothing background to a relationship that’s very harmonious at first. The photography of the mountains is superb at day, as are the interactions at night, with faces impressively lit by fireplaces and torches (a very naturalistic effect is achieved). The camera movements are subtle and gentle, with an abundance of tracking shots and slow panning. These mountains become an insurmountable challenge and possibly a deathtrap in the second half of the story, after Pema and Karma embark on horseback in search of Tashi. He has disappeared after being informed that Pema is pregnant with Dawa’s school teacher Ram Sir (Karma Shakya). They want to convince him that the hearsay is inaccurate, and bring him back home safely.

Shambhala is a meditative and poetic movie dotted with visions and allegorical scenes. The film title refers to a spiritual idyll, a place is portrayed in dreamy sepia sequences, with an old and heavily bearded man (Pena’s mentor, also known as riponche) always at the forefront. But from early on, there are signs that this about to change. Pema has a vision that she gives birth to a shaggy wild ox: “I opened my legs and saw a yak coming out”. This nightmare is not visually illustrated, but it serves to warn viewers that tranquility may not prevail for much longer.

Despite the interesting premise and the breathtaking locations, Shambhala is visually and narratively monotonous. The images of the mountains become repetitive after a while. The monochromatic allegorical scenes look trite. The story is as thin as the Himalayan air; at times it meanders just as aimlessly as its characters. Consequently, the film loses its breath after the first hour (the total duration time is a whopping two hours and a half). Also a little disappointingly, there is no message of liberation for women, or anyone else. Pema is imprisoned by triple marriage and then by her mission to rescue her man. The first Nepalese entry in the history of the Berlinale is a technically accomplished, warm and beautiful drama, is also a little soporific.

Shambhala just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.


By Victor Fraga - 25-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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