“Your memory is remarkable.”
A sentiment regularly thrown towards Tharlo‘s titular man becomes not only his hallmark trait, but an apt appreciation for the work of the many actors involved in Pema Tseden’s production. Scenes that pensively deliberate on “real” conversations hold focus for minutes, unfolding before the central character’s simple life. Using an entirely Tibetan cast and crew, director Tseden is able to create an authentic sense of Tharlo’s isolated existence, bringing an impression of remote and underrepresented cultures to the big screen.
Tharlo (Shide Nyima) is a simple mountain shepherd who prefers the straightforward life of his chosen profession to the instant-gratification wonders of an evolving world. Needing to apply for a government-issued I.D. card, Tharlo is told that he must venture into the nearby town to get a proper picture taken. In what essentially becomes a 123-minute visual metaphor for culture-collisions and the pitfalls and pleasures of modernization, the traditionally-minded shepherd gets a small taste of big-city life, and cannot help to bring some of it home to his remote mountain climes.
Shot in black and white, and with a style that resembles Jim Jarmusch’s quiet and confident gaze, Tharlo never distracts its audience with unnecessary movement or editing. Like the behemoth cameras of early cinema, Tseden’s lens is cemented in place, yet shot compositions feel almost effortless; the weightlessness of these fleeting moments and conversations contrast sharply with the prodigiousness of the static camera. In an opening long take, the director sets a tone for the rest of the film, allowing the actors to have full, natural conversations and forcing realism into the narrative. The result is somewhere between documentary and cautionary tale; improv must have played a part in many of the interactions while Tseden’s guiding hand leads Tharlo and his contemporaries down the winding road of crisis.
Tharlo remarkably manages to draw little attention to itself while engaging in these super long takes and close-quarters conversions. A mix of actor awkwardness (one suspects that many of them are non-actors) and, depending on the viewer, a complete ignorance of Standard Tibetan erase flaws that exist unintentionally, and help to ensure that long scenes feel more like fly-on-the-wall moments than practiced tricks of memorization. Tharlo’s quiet apprehensiveness disarms the discerning viewer looking for acting ticks and conversational truths in such a way that any missed beats or dropped lines feel like natural speech patterns and less like blatant errors.
With sprawling landscape shots that contrast the confined reality of life as a Tibetan shepherd, Tharlo is a groundbreaking work of cinema, and one of which the people of Tibet can be proud. A meandering meditation through one man’s life as it veers off course — crashing into the unmovable wall of modern life — Pema Tseden’s all-Tibetan film is a confrontation of old and new, of solitude and togetherness, of dreams and reality.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinephile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.