If you recognize the name Milarepa, you probably already know it denotes one of Tibet's most revered saints. If you don't, you'll find enlightenment, but not much fulfillment, in "Milarepa" the movie.
Beautifully photographed and worshipfully constructed, this is a serious melodrama that cares more about being faithful to its hero's story than it does about connecting to a diverse audience. It is careful and slow (really slow), focused and dutiful. It is also distant and incomplete, setting out the first half of a story that is far less of a cliffhanger than its makers - apparently already committed to releasing part 2 in 2009 - seem to think.
"Milarepa: Magician, Murderer, Saint," its official title, is directed and co-written by Neten Chokling, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who some say is the reincarnation of a famous yogi and who also acts occasionally (see Khyentse Norbu's "The Cup"). Part 1 of Milarepa's 11th-century spiritual saga begins with the legend's boyhood, when he was known as Thopaga.
The son of a wealthy merchant, Thopaga seems destined for a life of privilege until his father dies, leaving his uncle in control of the family fortune. The uncle has a gambling problem and a greedy sister close by, which does not bode well for Thopaga's inheritance.
After years of mistreatment, the youth comes of age. Impoverished and egged on by his mother's dire pronouncements, he sets out to learn sorcery (the "poor man's weapon" against injustice) so he can take revenge on the entire community that failed them. But in mastering and unleashing the destructive power of black magic, Thopaga ultimately finds more misery than satisfaction. He starts to see that waging war is no way to inner peace. And that is where this film abruptly ends.
To see Thopaga/Milarepa's journey from darkness to divine light you have to wait for the sequel. Maybe that works for devoted followers, but it isn't fair to the average unsuspecting viewer. It isn't skillful storytelling, either.
On the other hand, Chokling and co-writer Tenzing Choyang Gyari should get points for wrapping their arms around the most unflattering parts of this redemptive tale. They and their stars (particularly Jamyang Lodro, as the grown-up Thopaga, and Kelsang Chukie Tethtong, as his mother) create characters that are flawed and not always likable, which in theory makes them only more human.
The biggest disappointment is that you don't feel more for the people and messages the movie presents. Despite timely and worthwhile subject matter, there is nothing very inspired or inspiring in what makes it to the screen. Maybe they're saving all of that for the sequel, too.