Berlin 2024: Shambhala movie review – first Nepalese film ever to be selected in competition is a transcendent masterpiece

Review | Berlin 2024: Shambhala movie review – first Nepalese film ever to be selected in competition is a transcendent masterpiece

4/5 stars

The first Nepalese movie ever selected for the Berlin Film Festival’s main competition, Shambhala is a meditative and undeniably beautiful experience. Transfixing shots of the Himalayas form the backdrop for this spiritual tale of marriage, motherhood and the pressures of monastic life.

With the title (which doesn’t even appear on screen until 50 minutes in) alluding to a place of reincarnation, the film centres on Pema (Thinley Lhamo), a woman who begins the film about to enter a polyandrous marriage with Tashi (Tenzin Dalha), and his two siblings, the monk Karma (Sonam Topden) and the much younger Dawa (Karma Wangyal).

“I’ll make my new family very happy,” she says, beaming, and there is a rustic charm about their simple cohabitation. “Finally this house feels alive,” we’re told, as Pema cooks a delicious-looking spicy stew.

But events take hold when Pema becomes pregnant and, worse, Tashi disappears after a trading trip to Lhasa, not to return. “Now I’m the man of the house,” says the increasingly unruly school-age Dawa.

Moreover, the identity of the father of Pema’s unborn baby is called into question by others in the community, leaving Pema no choice but to set out and find Tashi. Initially, she’s joined by Karma, who appears conflicted about leaving his monastery. But increasingly her journey through the harsh but spectacular terrain sees her seek inner understanding.

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Co-written and directed by Min Bahadur Bham, unsurprisingly a former student of Buddhist philosophy, political science and anthropology, there is an innate fascination here with Eastern rituals and symbols. Runes are carved and poured over, and the director boils his themes down to words like “heartbreak” and “pain”.

If this suggests a lack of subtlety, the film is so delicately etched that it ceases to matter. True, the unhurried nature of the story, reflecting the rhythms of life in the Himalayas, will frustrate some. But when you can spend your time watching a herd of yaks ambling past, carrying goods to Lhasa, it feels like you’re being transported to another world.

Lhamo gives a quietly resolute turn as Pema, a woman who will suffer great hardship in this odyssey. Still, there are some lovely touches, like the orange sweater that she starts knitting early on. What does it symbolise? Perhaps that every stitch can contribute to the greater whole.

Thinley Lhamo as Pema in a still from Shambhala. Photo: Aditya Basnet/Shooney Films

Whatever the case, Shambhala is a film like no other: exquisite, touching and transcendent in nature.

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