A young Catalan teacher moves to Kathmandu in the early '90s to volunteer in a local school. She discovers extreme poverty and a devastatingly bleak educational system. She enters a marriage of convenience to gain residency in order to launch an ambitious educational project in the slums of Kathmandu, but immediately realises that she can't do it all by herself.
An idealistic young Spanish woman heads to the Himalayas to teach poor kids and to try to improve their lives while battling local customs and prejudices, corruption and bureaucratic hurdles in Icíar Bollaín’s Kathmandu Lullaby. In its intentions the film is as noble, earnest and well-meaning as her mission, but the execution is plodding and uninspiring.
Their union strains credulity.
Put simply, the narrative just isn’t sufficiently cinematic, lacking dramatic drive and emotional intensity. And while it’s based on a true story, the film suffers from a fundamental weakness in that the protagonist’s romance with a local guy with whom she enters a marriage of convenience is entirely unconvincing.
The screenplay by Bollaín and Paul Laverty (a frequent collaborator with Ken Loach on socially-conscious films such as Bread and Roses, Ae Fond Kiss and The Wind That Shakes the Barley) uses as source material the 2002 book A Teacher in Kathmandu by Victòria Subirana, a Catalan teacher who settled in Nepal in the late 1980s. However an opening slide clumsily states: 'Some fictional action do not correspond with the book."
The heroine, Laia (Verónica Echegui) escapes an unhappy upbringing in a Catholic school in Barcelona, briefly conveyed in a melodramatic flashback, to work as a volunteer teacher at a school in Kathmandu.
Told that her visa will expire in 15 days and she’ll be deported if she overstays, she reluctantly agrees to wed the shy, softly-spoken Tshiring (Norbu Tsering Gurung). She outlines the rules--no hanky panky, and divorce soon afterwards—and he meekly accepts.
Romance, however, blossoms quite quickly after she agrees to meet his family who live in the mountains, and they fall into bed in an un-erotic, chastely-filmed sequence.
Thereafter we are meant to believe this couple is united by a fierce love and commitment, despite the cultural gulf between them and the incessant challenges and strains of her job. But there is zero chemistry, no romantic spark, between them so their union strains credulity. Norbu had not acted before and it shows as he struggles to invest his character with any presence or conviction.
Much more credible is the deep friendship between Laia and a fellow teacher, a young married woman named Sharmila (Saumyata Bhattarai), which overcomes initial friction. A Buddhist who is desperate to have a male heir, Sharmila accepts the caste system and believes each person’s destiny can’t be changed, irritating Laia who asks, 'So the poor stay poor forever?"
The two women form a bond which grows stronger when Laia launches her own school in the slums, which leads to more challenges. Laia’s marriage comes under strain and Sharmila faces a crisis but the drama rarely reaches a crescendo. One thinly developed sub-plot revolves around a student who is sold into sex slavery and another concerns a girl who lost her name, and identity, when her brother was born.
A gifted actress, Echegui shows plenty of spirit and grit as her character faces a series of setbacks, but watching a resolute do-gooder cope with that much hardship and adversity becomes tiring. Too often Laia trots out homilies to her students about self-empowerment, which sound overly preachy, such as, 'All of us can change things. We can change ourselves, we can change our environment, we can change the community in which we live."
The inexperienced Bhattarai is effective although her diction is sometimes hard to understand.
Antonio Riestra’s cinematography capitalises on the spectacular scenery of mountains and rivers, while the scenes in the slums have a docu-drama-like realism.