Seven Years in Tibet is a pale contender next to Martin Scorsese's visually arresting film biography of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet.
Using a cast of Tibetan refugees many with connections to the Dalai Lama Scorsese's Kundun beautifully captures the spirit of Tibet in a way Seven Years could not. Where that film became a vehicle for Brad Pitt, Kundun focuses on the Dalai Lama, celebrating the rich heritage of his country and his people and unfolding his amazing story.
Scorcese's telling of that story is leisurely, although the pace is entirely appropriate here. He is, afterall, conveying the discipline and tranquility of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. While this approach has a quiet beauty and works as a social and historical documentary, it falls somewhat flat as drama.
Screenwriter Melissa Mathison reportedly based her script on interviews with the Dalai Lama, and the film's credits note that Kundun was made with his cooperation. But trying to cover so much territory makes it hard to get beneath the surface or to sustain dramatic tension. The meticulous chronicling of the Dalai's life and the lack of a tight narrative slows the film down and gives it a certain aloofness.
With that said, what gives Kundun its power is Scorsese's stunning visual style. The rich tapestry of images he weaves is breathtaking. From the film's opening images of a sand painting, filmed in closeup allowing you to watch the colored streams of sand slowly form an intricate pattern, you see that Scorsese is a master of his art. Whatever passions it fails to conjure Kundun makes up for with its exquisite camera work. It is a thing of astounding beauty.
In one scene, Scorses moves the camera overhead, using time-lapse photography to show the evolution of a sand painting. The painstaking, highly-detailed work of the monks is later brushed away in slow motion, so that the grains of sand form a sparkling dance of dust.
In another sequence, the monks scoop up the sand and scatter the multi-colored grains into the water. The image that makes the most indelible imprint, however, is a surreal dream sequence of the Dalai Lama in his red robes standing in a sea of slain monks in red robes, the camera slowly panning overhead until the effect is like an impressionist kaleidoscope of reds. It's an amazing shot choreographed to perfection.
The visual splendor of Kundun often overshadows the story it is telling, so that Melissa Mathison's script becomes like a secondary character to all the dazzling camera work. The measured telling of the story, as educational as it is, renders the fascinating details of the Dalai Lama's life almost incidental.
The film follows those details from 1937, when a two-year-old child is recognized as the reincarnation of Kundun (the name of the first Dalai Lama who, according to Tibetan belief, is born again and again), to 1950 when the Chinese communist army began ravaging his homeland, and on through his arduous journey to exile in 1959.
The story begins following the death of the 13th Dalai Lama. In a village near the Chinese border lives an unusual little boy who thinks he is a king. When two strangers show up at his family's door, the boy is transfixed by one of the men's beads. "I'll give it to you if you know who I am," the stranger tells the child. "Lama," the boy replies.
When they display a variety of objects, the unprepossessing child picks out the Dalai Lama's things, saying, "This is mine. I need this."
Kundun chronicles the early life of the Dalai Lama, but the beauty of the film outshines its story.
The child has passed the test in what is known as the sacred process of insightful divination. "You are here to love all living things," they pronounce. "You are the Buddha of Compassion, the 14th Dalai Lama."
He is taken from his family to the monastery in Lasa, where he is educated by the finest minds of his country to assume his role of Tibet's spiritual and secular leader. Scorsese and Mathison tell the story through the Dalai's eyes. When a minister wraps his robes around the young Dalai, we see what the confused child sees as he tentatively surveys this strange new world through the red fabric.
As he grows up in this cloistered environment, he shows a natural curiosity in the world. He watches old films, reads the newspapers of the day. He watches in horror the newsreel clips of the bombing of Hiroshima. As world events become increasingly unstable, the confused young Dalai feels the enormous pressure on him. "I'm just a boy," he protests.
"You must know what to do," comes the response. "You are our leader."
Kundun paints an unusually human portrait of the young Dalai Lama, who is naturally intimidated by the heady responsibilities thrust upon him. Nowhere is his reluctance more sympathetically portrayed than when he asks his minister, "Do you ever wonder if they found the right boy?"
The film charts his growth from a tentative boy to a man who leads Tibet through an unsettling period of strife. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, a relative of the Dalai Lama's extended family, who prepared for the role by living in a monastery for six weeks, imbues the character with a vulnerability that is especially affecting.
The Chinese generals who come to see the Dalai always pose under the guise of rescuing Tibet from the imperialists. "We are here to heal, reform and liberate," the generals tell him, although their actual intentions are to destroy the Tibetans' way of life.
If the Dalai stays in Tibet, the Chinese will kill him, and if they kill him they will kill Tibet. He has no choice but to flee, even though it means he will rule in exile, never to return.
Scorsese's portrayal of the Chinese invasion is so understated that it fails to drive home the plight of these people. This is a historical episode that is ripe with drama, but we get only glimpses of it. We learn of Chinese atrocities through the reports of ministers to the Dalai Lama, through the sounds of bombs and gunfire off screen, and through the dreams of the Dalai. The implied horror is best portrayed in the faces of the Tibetan actors, many of whom actually lived through the invasion.
"I am a reflection like the moon on water," the Dalai Lama humbly answers when an Indian border guard asks who he is. Like the Dalai's description of himself, Scorsese's Kundun is like a reflection on water. It is a beautiful, ethereal, visual feast, whose images, unfortunately, are more powerful than the story that lies behind them.