Built to beguile, The Cup takes its sweet time to tell a kindly tale about a bunch of novice Tibetan monks with a soccer habit that goes way beyond kicking an empty Coke can around when the abbot isn’t looking. Led by Orgyen (Jamyang Lodro), a winning urchin whose ear-to-ear grin would blast anyone‘s team to the semifinals, the boys slip away from the monastery at night to join the other sports fans in their Tibetan refugee settlement at the foot of the Himalayas, yelling at a communal television tuned to the World Cup.
Far from being a cute plot conceit, this improbable scenario is lifted from life. Evidently monks go nuts for football, a factoid that only an insider could know or savor: Western-made films tend to lie down and die of reverence for Tibetan spiritual life, casting its practitioners as paragons of tolerance and virtue. Director Khyentse Norbu, a pedigreed Bhutanese lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, shot The Cup with a cast drawn mostly from one of the many monasteries-in-exile that Chinese oppression has spawned. Aside from his spiritual credentials, Norbu is also a serious film fancier who apprenticed with Bertolucci on Little Buddha. And he’s a quick study: The Cup is gorgeous, the monks‘ robes a luminous riot of ochre, maroon and orange against the magnificence of the mountainous landscape.
If working with Bertolucci has given Norbu technical poise, being a monk liberates him from the ga-ga ingenuousness that produced Little Buddha. And though The Cup is lovely to look at, it has none of the ceremonial rigor mortis of Scorsese’s Kundun. Norbu has a wry appreciation for the spontaneous underlife that throbs within the most ritualized institutions. Busted for nocturnal excursions by Geko (Orgyen Tobgyal), the monastery‘s disciplinarian, the boys petition the abbot to host a view-ing of the Cup Final within the monastery walls, and set about drumming up a satellite dish for the occasion. Norbu mines the story for impish commentary on how Western technology has wormed its way into the remotest traditional cultures. His movie is littered with good-natured pokes at the West in general (Geko explains soccer to the old abbot as ”two civilized nations fighting for a ball“) and, in particular, the U.S., where, young Orgyen is convinced, ”everything is made of rubber.“ The news is not all bad for the integrity of monastery life: The Coke can makes not only a serviceable football, but a fine ritual candle-holder. When the satellite dish breaks down, the boys fill in with an impromptu shadow play using only their hands and the blank television screen.
The message is that traditional cultures create their own uses for Western gadgets, an appealing view though, I fear, that of a cockeyed optimist. Like most movies designed for charm, The Cup is self-limiting. It lacks any real sense of danger, for Norbu has framed the monks’ soccer obsession as unthreatening to the monastery, and therefore liable to indulgent treatment by the authorities. When Orgyen‘s entrepreneurial drive causes pain to a fresh recruit — a boy newly arrived after a harrowing trek from Chinese-occupied Tibet — his infallibly wise superiors bail him out, although not without using the occasion to trot out a life lesson: ”If a problem can be solved, why be unhappy?“ intones the voice-over. ”If a problem can’t be solved, why be unhappy?“ That sort of smug bromide will surely bring a bloom to the cheeks of Richard Gere and other Hollywood lamas. More skeptical souls will ask whether a society as closed as a religious order could really tolerate such foreign incursions without fatally compromising its identity. As any parent knows, one night of television is never enough.