by Rob Gonsalves
Martin Scorsese's 'Kundun' is a hushed and meditative film, wholly befitting its subject (the Dalai Lama). Sometimes I don't understand American critics, who have almost unanimously dismissed 'Kundun' as "boring" and "undramatic." They miss the point -- and miss the movie.The Kundun I saw is Scorsese's best movie since GoodFellas -- a dreamlike and poetic vision of becalmed Buddhist life. Nothing much happens in the conventional narrative sense (until the Chinese invade Tibet), but Scorsese, usually the most hyperactive and tumultuous of directors, makes you understand and appreciate the very idea of nothing happening.
"Scorsese's unjustly ignored visual poem."
Kundun unfolds as a series of tableaux and impressionistic montages; it's essentially an experimental film. The script, by Melissa Mathison (E.T.), outlines the barest bones of the Dalai Lama's story -- perfect for Scorsese's purposes, because he isn't trying to make a normal biopic. Kundun is pure cinema, a story telling itself through images. Working with the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and his usual editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese creates the movie equivalent of a trance; Philip Glass's ritualistic, repetitive score serves as a kind of mantra.
The movie begins with little Tenzin Gyatso, a normal toddler who seems to exhibit the usual bratty behavior (he demands to sit at his father's place at dinner). There are indications that the boy is special -- that he has memories of power in a previous life. "He thinks he's a king," sneers one of his brothers. Close enough. Soon, a monk travelling to Lhapso stops at the boy's house; he is looking for the reborn 14th Dalai Lama (the 13th has recently died), and he becomes convinced that the willful little boy is the living incarnation of Buddha.
As some critics have pointed out, Scorsese keeps the early scenes rather ambiguous. The prospective little Dalai Lama is told to point at objects that "belong to him" -- i.e., belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. The boy does so, subtly prodded by the monk, whose expressions seem to guide the boy's hand. It's almost a solemn game of "hot and cold." The monks, after all, need another spiritual leader. Scorsese the famous Catholic may not fully buy into the concept of reincarnation, and may have planted tiny doubts like this in the narrative, but in the end, the Dalai Lama, whether or not he was truly born into his position, learns to grow into it.
Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong takes over the role when the Dalai Lama moves into his teens, and he's a natural if undemonstrative actor, with placid, angular features that reminded me a little of Matthew Modine. The teenage leader of Tibet has gained wisdom since childhood, but he's still basically a boy, untested and naÔve, and he waits until the last possible instant to flee Tibet once the Chinese invade. The graceful images throughout have given us reason to love Tibet, and we understand why the Dalai Lama doesn't want to leave. Scorsese has shown us a mindful and elegant way of life, and we mourn its violent passing in the hands of Mao Zedong.
Kundun is light years beyond the previous Dalai Lama film, the oafish Seven Years in Tibet, in which we were supposed to sigh at the highlights in Brad Pitt's hair as he hung out with the Dalai Lama and became nicer. Neither is this a noble failure like Scorsese's The Age of Innocence, an equally extreme departure. It's closer to Scorsese's other spiritual study, The Last Temptation of Christ, in which the savage red landscapes were a battleground for Jesus's inner conflicts. Kundun rejects conflict (as Buddhism itself does), and, since we Westerners demand conflict in our drama, there's a danger of chalking Kundun up as another noble failure. If only all "failures" were this mesmerizing.At this late stage in his career, Scorsese is still taking chances and refusing to play by the rules. This quiet, meditative gallery of pictures may be his most radical, trangressive film in years; it requires that we disavow everything we want from normal movies. It's a true Buddhist work of art.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=447&reviewer=416
originally posted: 01/17/07 22:50:15