In a lush, sensuous dreamscape that fully exploits the cinema's potential for virtually wordless emotional communication, Martin Scorsese has taken yet another experimental turn with "Kundun," his interpretation of the early life of the 14th Tibetan Dalai Lama.
If his 17th film seems to resemble a meditative tone poem more than the pulsating, kinetic paeans to mob life for which he is most famous, "Kundun" (the title refers to the name used to address the Dalai Lama) still bursts with the love of movement and color that marks Scorsese's best works. Moreover, it represents a fascinating chapter of a career that has been dedicated to defying conventional storytelling, whether through the driving, reiterative "Mean Streets" or the jangly mannerism of "Casino" (with the odd "New York, New York" and "Last Temptation of Christ" in between).
With "Kundun," Scorsese has decelerated considerably, allowing his eye to take in with studied concentration the breadth of Tibet (played in the film by Morocco) and 27 years in the life of one of the most powerful spiritual leaders of the 20th century. For filmgoers willing to slow down with Scorsese and succumb to the magnificent images and sounds he marshals to his cause, "Kundun" is a quietly profound experience, resonant with sensuality and sobering emotion.
"Kundun," which was written by Melissa Mathison ("E.T.," "The Black Stallion") from several interviews she conducted with the Dalai Lama, begins its story in 1937. Then, the boy who would become the spiritual leader of the enormous country to China's southwest was a typically spoiled 2-year-old, living with his family in a simple farmhouse near the Tibet-China border. When monks disguised as itinerants -- stay overnight, they realize that they have found the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. The boy is transported to Lhasa, where he will be trained to be the political and spiritual leader of millions of Tibetan Buddhists, who have been living in almost feudal seclusion for generations.
"Kundun" spends a fair amount of time on this period of the child's life, and part of its fascination is in watching how a temperamental, often selfish little boy, being constantly told he is the embodiment of wisdom and love, becomes just that. (There might even be a book in this idea: "How to Raise a Dalai Lama, or a Kid Just Like One.")
The child who never looked twice at the sheep his father raised is soon buying entire herds to save their lives; eventually, his empathy extends to his own minions, who aren't as happy-go-lucky as some may have us think. One of the strengths of "Kundun" is that Scorsese shows Tibet as a society fraught with problems rather than soaked in spiritual bliss.
The 5-year-old Dalai Lama may not know where Poland or Pearl Harbor are, but he soon becomes educated in the paradox of a society in which the monks carry guns and a mentor can be arbitrarily imprisoned and executed. The teen-age Dalai Lama begins to talk about reform, but his attempts are interrupted by Communist China, which begins threatening Tibet soon after the war and finally invades in 1950.
Unlike "Seven Years in Tibet," last year's film that starred Brad Pitt, "Kundun" depicts the carnage obliquely, through the dreams and visions of the Lama, or through metaphor: One of the film's most effective scenes is of a Buddhist burial, wherein a body is fed to the vultures to complete the circle of life, intercut with the Lama reading Mao's edict declaring Tibet a Chinese colony.
To its credit, "Kundun" gives the ironies of the Dalai Lama's story their full due, including how he first believed Buddhism and Socialism could co-exist and how the contemporary personification of peace was smuggled into India in 1959 disguised as a soldier.
Scorsese takes note of these contradictions without resorting to polemic; he draws the audience in through sight and sound, not its intellect. Rather than driving, plot-driven narrative, "Kundun" unfolds as a series of potent images and representative scenes.
It's an effective strategy. Among the most unforgettable images of "Kundun" is the sight, in a dream, of the young leader sitting among a circle of massacred monks, while the camera pulls back to reveal a mandala of bloodied, scarlet robes. (Fans of Scorsese who admire his operatic way with violence need look no further than this scene, which has been rightly compared to the shot of dead and dying soldiers in "Gone With the Wind.")
The cast of non-professional Tibetan exiles living in India, Canada and the United States provides an outstanding tableau of faces bearing witness to Tibetan history; especially convincing are Tenzin Paichang, as the petulant 2-year-old Lama, and Tenzin Tsarong, who portrays the leader as a grown young man. Tencho Gyalpa, who plays the Lama's mother, is actually his niece and is playing her own grandmother in the film. The Dalai Lama's real-life brother portrays his uncle.
Roger Deakins' photography and Thelma Schoonmaker's editing provide vibrant visual energy to an otherwise contemplative production; Philip Glass' enveloping, often elegiac score amplifies the reflective mood. Scorsese has orchestrated all of these elements to create a majestic study in color and light that suggests a sense of discovery even as it looks back in reverence to a lost time and place.
At one point, the Dalai Lama laments that when the Chinese invaded Tibet, they took away that country's silence. Scorsese has restored that silence in "Kundun," which is a stunning example of film at its most sacramental.
Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Rated PG-13 (violent images)
Sun score: ****
Pub Date: 1/16/98