Written and directed by a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Khyentse Norbu, this feature film is the first to be produced in the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan. It stars the actual residents of the remote Chokling Monastery and is based on a true story.
With such a background, one would reasonably expect a plodding, reverential movie about a people of almost superhuman wisdom and dignity. If The Cup had been made by a Western director, that’s probably what it would be. Norbu, however, has an insider’s perspective and a clear-eyed view of his own culture.
In a monastery-in-exile in India, young Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro) and his fellow novices indulge in the one passion that can compete with their religious studies: soccer. Their walls are covered with posters of champion players, and the men trade scores during prayers. They also sneak out to the nearby village to watch the games on TV, which gets them in hot water with Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), the outwardly stern second-in-command to the abbot (Lama Chonjor, the real abbot at Chokling Monastery). When it comes time for the final match of the World Cup, Orgyen is determined to rent a television and satellite dish for the big night, and he proceeds to harass everyone in the place until he scrapes up enough money to do so.
Sweet and generally lighthearted, The Cup focuses less on the clash between old and new than on how the two can co-exist without destroying each other. Despite their devotion to the game, the young monks take their faith seriously and try to live up to their calling. For their part, the monastery elders acknowledge the need for a little recreation now and then, though they never quite understand the appeal of watching “two civilized nations fighting over a ball.”
Norbu doesn’t try to make any grand statements about the encroachment of modernity into this stronghold of ancient tradition. That’s actually a good thing, because such preachiness would undermine the movie’s easygoing tone. Norbu makes sure that little Orgyen learns a few lessons about compassion and responsibility, but the writer-director does so with the same gentle humor found in the rest of the film.
The Cup is hardly earth-shattering, and some may find it slow and not “deep” enough. To those willing to give it a chance, however, it is a charming introduction to a world that is alien to most viewers but is at the same time entirely recognizable. (G) Rating: 8