directed by Martin Scorsese
Buena Vista, 1997

Martin Scorsese is best known for his films about the mean streets and the even meaner people who live and work there. So it seems fitting that for his most recent video release he's chosen to document the life of the world's foremost pacifist, a man who makes Gandhi look like a raging bull, the Dalai Lama.

Most Americans have little enough idea who the Buddha was, much less any notion that he's reportedly returned more than a dozen times to lead the nation at the top of the world. So Scorsese opens his film with word of the death of the 13th Dalai Lama and of the search to find his successor.

That search quickly leads to a willful 2-year-old who insists on sitting at the head of the dinner table and of hearing again and again the story of his birth: how he didn't cry; how it brought health to his father and prosperity to his struggling family; and how the crows, symbols of the Buddha, looked on. Before long, the boy is spirited away to the capital, Lhasa, where he's trained to become the spiritual and political leader of a million or more Tibetans.

Scorsese has always been one to challenge himself, and in Kundun, he doesn't have to look far.

Working with a cast of unknowns, at least to the West, he nevertheless evokes realistic yet sympathetic performances from everyone involved: the actors who played the Dalai Lama from toddlerhood until his 20s, when he fled Tibet in protests over the Chinese invasion (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, adult; Gyurme Tethong, 10; Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, 5; Tenzin Yeshi Paichang, 2); the Dalai Lama's regent and first teacher, Reting Rimpoche (Sonam Phustsok); his loving if sometimes bewildered parents (Tencho Gyalpo and Tsewang Migyur Khangsar); and his equally bewildered prime ministers (Jigme Tsarong and Tenzin Trinley), who are charged with bringing the centuries-old farming community of Tibet into the modern world.

The final film is a testament to the power and scope of Scorsese's film-making abilities -- a compelling history, geography and religion lesson all rolled into one. Scorsese's scorched images of Tibet -- actually shot in Morocco -- are hauntingly beautiful, and the Dalai Lama's meeting with Mao Tse-tung is as ominous as anything in Taxi Driver or Goodfellas.

Add to that the shots of the monks at prayer or the Dalai Lama confronting the oracle -- all driven by a powerful Philip Glass score -- and you have more than a film: Kundun is a study in light, shadow and hue, a National Geographic video with a storyline that's as powerful as it is true.

If Kundun has a flaw, it's that its later scenes rely heavily on voice-over narration by the Dalai Lama to advance the story, or that Robert Lin as Chairman Mao seems so wooden as to be the puppet that his detractors in the U.S. Senate always said he was. It's as if Lin were afraid to move for fear of cracking the Mao makeup.

But when you see the Dalai Lama standing in a swirling sea of corpses left by the Chinese invaders, or staggering, half held, across the Indian border to sanctuary, you know that Scorsese has scored once again.

Kundun is a tale that needed to be told, and cries out to be listened to.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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