He may be the most revered man in the world. For Tibetan Buddhists, he's the living embodiment of Buddha--an extremely holy man who likes to refer to himself as "a simple monk." He's also the head of Tibet's government-in-exile--the de facto leader of the Tibetan people, who remain staunchly loyal to him despite a half-century of Chinese occupation. For the West, he's the leading exponent of Eastern mysticism, a red-robed guru leading the way to peace, wisdom, enlightenment. He's also the most recent ambassador from Shangri-la, a land of yak milk and honey that may exist only in the West's ever-hopeful imagination. He is, of course, the Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize and perhaps the least simple monk this side of Rasputin. Ever since the Chinese took over his country and began ripping Tibetan culture to shreds (more than one million Tibetans killed, almost all the monasteries destroyed), the Dalai Lama has been wandering the globe in search of friends and support. That the man who embodies Buddhist detachment has spent his whole life engaged in geopolitics is one of the supreme ironies of our time. Another supreme irony is that the Dalai Lama has finally found his salvation in...the Walt Disney Company. Years from now, when studio heads gather at Spago to discuss who lost China, Disney's Michael Eisner may kick himself for agreeing to distribute Kundun, Martin Scorsese's cinematic tribute to the Dalai Lama's early years in Tibet. Like the McDonald's Corp., Disney looks at China and sees a giant sign that says "Over 1 Billion Served." The company even has hopes of locating a theme park on Chinese soil. And so, when Chinese government officials started barking about Kundun, Eisner sent no less than Henry Kissinger to negotiate a détente between the Magic Kingdom and the Middle Kingdom. You can't get much more geopolitical than that. To its credit, Disney has stood by the movie, however weak in the knees. Even so, it's hard to believe that Kundun will have much of an effect on the world's consciousness...or its conscience. Like Tibet itself, the movie may be too remote, too exotic, too detached from the rest of the world. Other movie critics have called it an art film. I'd call it an art film for children. Told from the young Dalai Lama's point of view, the movie is like a fairy tale about a kid who was born in a cow barn and grew up to become--make that "grew into being"--the spiritual and temporal leader of his people. Early on, Scorsese adopts the smoothly flowing camera style of, say, Steven Spielberg. (Melissa Mathison, who wrote the script, also wrote E.T.) And, as in a Spielberg movie, many of the shots are from a child's point of view. When a young boy walks outside, the screen floods with bright light until his eyes have adjusted. Thus does Scorsese bind us to the toddler who may prove to be the 14th Dalai Lama. The son of poor farmers who live far from the holy city of Lhasa, the boy must first pass a series of tests not unlike the future King Arthur's attempting to remove the sword from the stone. Working with nonprofessional actors, Scorsese brings a sturdy sense of enchantment to this part of the movie, which is closer to a folk tale than a fairy tale. As for the Dalai Lama's growing-up years at Lhasa's 1,200-room Potala Palace, during which the monks try to transform him from a boy into a man-god, I kept thinking about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Homesick and perhaps a little bored, the young Kundun (an honorific title meaning "Ocean of Wisdom") drools while reciting the Four Noble Truths and can't sit still while those around him meditate for hours upon hours. A slacker, he's the original dharma bum. But, of course, he grows up; and I wish I could say the movie grows up with him. Instead, it remains adamantly childlike. "Your Holiness, the Chinese have invaded," a senior advisor tells the 15-year-old Kundun in a voice so sweetly pacifist that you know the Tibetans don't have a chance. Chance or no chance, Kundun (now played by the fourth of four actors, who succeed one another in a chain of cinematic reincarnation) must steer a course through the Chinese occupation. Alas, the movie isn't very clear about what course he chooses, only vaguely alluding to the political situations inside and outside the palace. Scorsese, of all people, can't seem to bring himself to look Tibet's troubles squarely in the eye; the closest the movie gets to the atrocities inflicted by the Chinese is a blink-and-you-miss-it shot of a Tibetan boy forced to murder his own parents. Why do Scorsese and Mathison bury their heads in the sand? Do they think they're being faithful to the young Dalai Lama, who was so isolated from his own people that he had to literally watch them through a telescope? Or do they think they're filtering the violence through the Tibetan Buddhists' commitment to nonviolence? To us jaded Westerners, can nonviolence mean anything without its evil twin, violence? Perhaps no other director in the history of cinema has gotten more out of violence than Martin Scorsese. His movies, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull and beyond, are a fight to the finish between the flesh and the spirit, guilt and redemption. "My whole life has been movies and religion," the director recently told The New Yorker's Louis Menand. "That's it. Nothing else." And, it turns out, Tibetan Buddhism has a lot in common with Scorsese's own Italian Catholicism--the devotion to elaborate ritual, for one thing. So how did Kundun come out so bloodless, so static, so disengaged from its own subject? It may be that Scorsese and Mathison feel too reverent toward His Holiness, whom they've both met. Mathison reportedly tailored her script per the Dalai Lama's suggestions, which is one of the reasons the movie seems like the cinematic equivalent of an authorized bio. (The Dalai Lama's own niece plays his mother in the film.) In The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese got down in the dirt and wrestled with Jesus; you could feel the director working out what he thought about faith and doubt. In Kundun, he doesn't seem to have any doubts. He embraces Buddhism rather than wrestles with it, which is another way of saying he's checked his ego at the door. For better or worse, America's premier auteur has made a selfless film about selflessness.
It's also a gorgeous film, with ravishing costumes and starkly beautiful vistas--everything enhanced by Philip Glass' chanting-mantra score. And yet, when it was all over, I felt strangely empty inside. Boredom or nirvana? A little of both, I'm afraid.