The Academy Awards to the contrary, there's nothing particularly brave, irreverent or spiritual about Hollywood movies that deal with suburban dysfunction (American Beauty), pro-choice politics (The Cider House Rules), gender-identity confusion (Boys Don't Cry) or mental health (Girl, Interrupted).
As was suggested in a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on Christian fundamentalism, the real counterculture -- the new bohemianism -- centers on the pursuit of religion-based lifestyles that defy the all-consuming commercialism of Western society.
"The Cup," a gentle comedy from first-time director Khyentse Norbu, offers a window into just such a world. Its setting is a Tibetan monastery that's been transplanted into exile in India. The time is 1998, the year of the World Cup soccer showdown between Brazil and France. There's symbolism there: The latter country supported the Tibetan cause when the Chinese invaded the isolated mountain kingdom in the 1950s, wiping out one-sixth of the population and destroying thousands of its religious retreats.
Shot at an actual monastery in Bhutan and featuring many of its residents as actors, the film opens with gorgeous, distant-view footage of the facility. Sacred objects are seen in close-up. And then we're presented with the movie's central image: A group of young monks kick a Coca-Cola can around the grounds in rough approximation of a soccer game.
Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), a 12-year-old natural leader, is a closet soccer fanatic. Under his robe, he wears a T-shirt bearing the name and number of Brazilian superstar Ronaldo. Orgyen's soccer and weightlifting magazines are among his most prized belongings, and the walls of his tiny room are lined with photos of his heroes.
The youths' growing devotion to the sport is noted with alarm by Geko (Orgyen Tobygal), a tough-but-fair older monk who registers his distress to the aging, forgetful Abbot (Lama Chonjur). "Two civilized nations fighting over a ball" is how Geko describes the game, but the older man appears intrigued. There's no sex involved, he reasons, so how bad an influence can it be?
The monks' lifestyle (pray, study, perform hard work, engage in religious rituals) is portrayed with admiration by director/writer Norbu, a filmmaker who also happens to be recognized by some Buddhists as the third incarnation of 19th-century lama Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. The overlap between fact and fiction also lives in Lodro, a real-life monk who proves a fiercely talented actor despite his lack of formal training. Tobygal is not only a Tibetan theologian but Lodro's off-screen father.
The latter portion of "The Cup" details the efforts of Orgyen's crew to wrangle a TV set and a satellite dish so they can enjoy a broadcast of the World Cup game. But the film's underlying theme is much broader: True spirituality and the material world may share the same space, Norbu seems to argue, and any political effort to squelch religious belief is thus wrongheaded. Having seen both worlds, he's more than able to make the call.
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