Bertolucci's wanderings on Buddhist religion require a quantum leap of faith

May 25, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Toward the end of "Little Buddha," I began to expect an offscreen voice that would stop the movie cold by proclaiming, ++ "No, I said a Bud Lite!"

Alas, what Bernardo Bertolucci has uncorked is a strange brew that might be called Buddhism Lite.

This peculiar film is more than one beer short of a six-pack. It's part massive folly, part screwball tract and part steel nerve, even a little heroic.

Give Bertolucci credit, he's not frightened of being laughed at. "Little Buddha" is essentially a $35 million Sunday school film, meant to introduce the young-at-heart to the tenets of the faith. Visually splendid, and in many ways astonishing, its naivete begins to grate after a bit and, issues of faith aside, it doesn't really convince as a drama.

Taking off from his own interest in Buddhism -- though he's not a Buddhist -- the great Italian filmmaker, director of "Last Tango in Paris" and "The Last Emperor," has put together a double-helix narrative that explores a provocative aspect of Buddhism today while examining its origins in India 2,500 years ago.

The latter strain has something of the campy excess of a Cecil B. DeMille epic and is perversely entertaining, with its palaces, dancing girls, gold jewelry and Nefertiti eye makeup. It's like "Land of the Pharaohs" on a yogurt-and-tofu diet. I could have used a beheading or two, however, and at least one sword fight.

Keanu Reeves, slimmed down to about 100 buff pounds, plays Siddartha, an Indian prince born to luxury, pleasure and indulgence and so beloved by his father that the doting old man decides to hide him from the reality of poverty, sickness, pain and death. Siddartha thus grows up unlettered in the ways of the world.

Reeves struggles to be both believable and ethereal, which may be antithetical goals, and he's not helped by an industrial-strength mascara job that makes him look a bit like the princess in "Aladdin." Still, the performance probably won't destroy his career in the way that playing Christ in "King of Kings" scuttled poor Jeffrey Hunter's back in 1961. But these sequences remain almost diorama rather than dramas, living sculptures of famous scenes from the life of the Buddha.

The prince leaves his sheltered life and begins to wander, looking for the true path to enlightenment. Bertolucci quite literally re-creates Siddartha's temptations using high-caliber special effects from Industrial Light & Magic.

I mean no disrespect to anybody's faith, but watching a bearded American movie star in lotus position resist the blandishments of three young women dancing the hootchy-kootchy probably is going to inspire more chuckles than devotion.

Things aren't much better in the modern half of the film.

A Tibetan sect exiled into Bhutan comes to believe that an American boy is the reincarnation of a famous master. The monks venture to Seattle, the boy's home, to persuade his parents to let him come to their monastery.

This sequence is not helped by wooden performances from Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda as the two parents, but it is helped by Alex Wiesendanger and Ying Ruocheng, as the boy and the leading monk.

In fact, both have a becalmed serenity that the camera responds to, which makes the relationship between them at least believable. Watching these two communicate almost wordlessly

-- perhaps the film's most appealing value -- is probably a more satisfying way of illustrating the Middle Path than any number of ancient re-creations.

Less believable is the passivity demonstrated by parents Isaak and Fonda in the face of these strange men from the East proclaiming that another soul rests in their child's body and requesting that he travel 6,000 miles with them to the most remote spots on earth. They never even call the police.

The modern tale soon resolves itself into a game of To Tell the Truth, as two other children are identified by monks as possible reincarnates. All three kids get together in Bhutan, where, among other things, it turns out they all speak English and are spookily photogenic. But Bertolucci is too classy to play this as a real contest, and he gets only marginal suspense out of it. In fact, in both its stories, "Little Buddha" feels somewhat dramatically miswired. They end with a whimper.

The true pleasures of "Little Buddha" are documentary. If you've ever been curious about those serene structures nestled high in the Himalayas and only seen from afar, you are at last invited in. Bertolucci penetrates the monastery to discover a vivid culture based equally on colorful ceremony, deep meditation and intellectual combat. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment is showing us the inside of one of the world's great faiths, and managing to make it seem warm and inviting, instead of remote and mysterious.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Little Buddha"

Starring Keanu Reeves and Alex Wiesendanger

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Released by Miramax

Rated PG

... **

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