“Milarepa,” review by Jennifer Merin

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Based on the life of the legendary Tibetan monk, “Milarepa” feels at times a bit like a Buddhist version of what Harry Potter wants to be.

On his deathbed, a wealthy man entrusts his brother to look after his widow and young son, and safeguard his fortune for his son to inherit upon coming of age. But the brother squanders the fortune for his own pleasure, treats his sister-in-law and nephew like slaves. After years of hard work and near starvation, the widow asks that the fortune be given to her son, who is now a man. The brother refuses. The widow arranges for her son to take revenge.

This simple plot is not unfamiliar to moviegoers–but it’s unlikely they’ve seen it presented as it is in “Milarepa,” a sort of spiritual biopic about Mila Thopaga, an 11th century monk, who is still one of the most revered teachers in the history and tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a humble man who became an extraordinary yogi.

According to legend, Thopaga took revenge against his wicked uncle through sorcery, the poor man’s weapon. In the film, he finds a teacher, masters the dark arts, causes great storm that destroys his enemies–and immediately feels enormous remorse about the pain and suffering he’s caused. He seeks guidance to find a better path, and becomes Milarepa, the monk.

Whether you believe in sorcery or not, “Milarepa” is a magical film: characters paint symbols on their soles so they can walk with the speed of wind, they cross the screen as shimmering and transparent clouds of dust, they levitate rocks, move mountains, cause thick fog that clouds the minds of those who would harm them, summons huge storms with striking displays of lightening. And, all of this is achieved without big budget CG, pyrotechnics and animatronics. The effects are stunning in their simplicity. Then, as Milarepa sits in meditation, we are treated to a fascinating, wonder-filled cinematic representation of enlightenment.

Perhaps the film is so successful in presenting transcendent elements because the film‘s director, Neten Chokling, understands these things better than most. He is, in fact, a Tibetan lama, trained within the lineage of masters that goes back to Milarepa, who has moviemaker chops. Sensitive and exquisite cinematography reveals the mystical majesty of mountain tops (the film was shot with northern India substituting for Tibet) and intimately captures the actors’ truly mythic performances.

While you’re enjoying the adventure, take a moment to digest the film’s message. More the pleasantly flavored vitamin than bitter pill, the moral is easy to swallow.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).