Directed by Eric Valli. Not rated.
Rated 4.0 Filmed on location in Nepal with non-professional actors, Himalaya is a visually exhilarating French production about Tibetan mountain people making their annual harvest trek with a caravan of yaks. It’s a kind of folk tale presented with a modest air of documentary realism, and it’s also a robust little epic about a dangerous journey made in a time when ancient traditions are being challenged.

An aging chieftain named Tinle tries to resume charge of the tribal caravan after his son, who had been the current caravan chief, dies in an accident out on the trail. Tinle is bitterly suspicious of the second-in-command of the younger chieftains, a charismatic chap named Karma who prefers a comparatively modern reasonableness to the ancient rituals and mercurial mysticism that Tinle adamantly maintains. The two men’s conflict splits the tribe and puts the annual stocking-up of food for the winter in jeopardy.

Two separate caravans set out bearing salt to be traded for grain, and what ensues is both a multi-leveled primal adventure and a life-and-death test of the leaders’ philosophies. Director Eric Zalli and a host of screenwriters get lots of extra mileage and a surprising amount of emotion of out these grass-roots conflicts by taking care to present both Tinle and Karma as strong but fallible leaders, each in his own way gambling on the authority of his intuitions and perceptions.

There is also a quietly astonishing poetry in the film’s matter-of-fact approach to the elaborate interplay of Karma’s quasi-modern skepticism and Tinle’s traditional mysticism. And there is a more spectacular astonishment in the film’s lavish portrayal of the magnificent and imposing landscapes that are integral to every aspect of this tale.

Cinematographers Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse have provided an intimate, on-the-scene realism for much of the film and punctuated that with visual apostrophes that leave us in awe at the enormity of the peaks and valleys that the seasonal caravans must traverse.