Pretty good mountain-climbing movie slows down for a spiritual journey and grinds to a halt in Chinese Communist politics.


October 10, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,COX NEWS SERVICE

"Seven Years in Tibet" raises a discouraging question: Where is David Lean when you need him?

This true-life tale of adventure and personal redemption might well have captivated Lean, the director of such classic historical spectacles as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Dr. Zhivago." Based on the memoir of mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, "Seven Years in Tibet" provides irresistible material for cinematic biography at its most mytho-romantic. This is precisely the sort of stuff Lean would have splashed across the screen (the wider the better) with lush, over-the-top gusto.

Consider the bare facts: In 1939 Harrer, a champion mountaineer played in "Seven Years in Tibet" by Brad Pitt, set out to conquer the Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat for Mother Austria, leaving behind his pregnant wife and, not incidentally, his colleagues in the Nazi SS.

During the climbing team's descent, Harrer and partner Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) were captured by the British and imprisoned in northern India for several years until they escaped to make a two-year trek to Tibet. There, they dared enter the sacred city of Lhasa, where they were accepted after some initial mistrust.

The journey itself would be ex-traordinary enough, but Harrer also had the fortune of being engaged as a tutor by the adolescent Dalai Lama, who as an infant was identified as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. The two embarked on a friendship that lasts to this day.

"Seven Years in Tibet" follows their story, including Harrer's personal growth at the hands of the Dalai Lama and the tragic events surrounding Communist China's invasion of Tibet in 1950.

The only wonder is that a movie wasn't made of Harrer's life sooner. The French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who proved an accomplished scenarist in such films as "The Quest for Fire" and "The Lover," makes the most of Harrer and Aufschnaiter's climbing adventures in the first hour of "Seven Years in Tibet," depicting their setbacks and near-deaths with chilling stunt work and stunning backdrops (much of the movie was filmed in Argentina).

But once the pair escapes from prison, the audience's journey becomes as arduous as the real-life version. When he gets to Lhasa, Annaud loses the central core of the story, allowing Harrer to wander the periphery aimlessly.

Too detached to make Harrer's spiritual transformation anything more than a passing plot point, yet never taking the sweeping view of events necessary for a truly grand historical narrative, "Seven Years in Tibet" hangs in that purgatory reserved for great movies that settled for being pretty good.

Pitt, his locks dyed a buttery blond to resemble the aggressively Aryan Harrer, wrestles Becky Johnston's atonal script with as much muscularity and grace as he can muster. Even though his good looks constantly threaten to detract from his solid talent as an actor, Pitt grasps the role with intuitive intelligence. But there are times when his youth works against him. After enduring bloody climbing accidents, freezing temperatures, near-starvation and attacks by bandits, Harrer emerges from his 12-year journey looking younger than when he started.

And Pitt must still fight a tendency to show rather than act (a strangulating gesture toward another character late in the film is one painful case in point).

Still, Pitt is not the problem with "Seven Years in Tibet." Nor are his fellow actors: Thewlis is splendid, as usual (he actually seems to grow older during in the course of the film), and Annaud has discovered some terrific unknowns to portray pivotal Tibetan characters. Lhakpa Tsamchoe plays a captivating Lhasa seamstress with an easy, natural appeal; Jetsun Pema, the Dalai Lama's real-life sister, graces the role of his mother with wisdom and dignity. But the director's real find is Jamyang Jamtsho Wangahuk, who imbues the 14-year-old Dalai Lama with extraordinary self-possession and even transcendence.

But for all the good casting, the colorful attention to the detail of Buddhist ritual and a few genuinely tender moments between Harrer and the young spiritual leader, "Seven Years in Tibet" fatally stalls when politics enter the picture.

Once the Communist Chinese begin to advance on Tibet, events take on an oddly distant, impersonal quality -- and Harrer is nowhere to be found.

And a voiceover, tacked on to the film during post-production, when Harrer's involvement with the Nazi SS came to light, will surely induce a wince among the exposition-averse: "I shudder to recall how at one time I embraced the same beliefs, how at one time I was no different from these intolerant Chinese." Pitt delivers this line with about as much subtlety as it was typed with.

To be sure, David Lean had his share of such ham-handed moments, but the original question still stands: Who and where are his contemporary counterparts? Perhaps they can be found among epic poets like Martin Scorsese, who has his own movie about Tibet scheduled for release in January. Considered as a precursor to that movie, "Seven Years in Tibet" might prove to be a serviceable, if immediately forgettable, primer.

Like the sacred Tibetan butter sculptures depicted in the story, Annaud has created a work of momentary beauty that swiftly melts into nothing much at all.

Ann Hornaday, currently working at the Austin-American Statesman in Texas, will be The Sun's new film critic beginning Nov. 1.

'Seven Years in Tibet'

Starring Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B. D. Wong

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud

Released by TriStar Pictures

Rated PG-13 (some violent sequences)

Sun score: ** 1/2

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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