Scorsese's exploration of violence and spirituality Movies: The Chinese in Tibet were like a crime family, observes the director, whose new movie, 'Kundun,' is about the nonviolent Dalai Lama.

January 18, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

You can take the gangsters away from Martin Scorsese, but not for long.

Take "Kundun," the director's new film, which chronicles the early life of the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who was identified at age 2 as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. A movie about the living embodiment of peace and understanding doesn't exactly lend itself to the kinds of characters Scorsese is known for -- the guys who populate "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" and "Casino."

But within minutes of telephoning a reporter to discuss "Kundun," Scorsese is making an analogy only he could make. "Mao is like a big gangster who runs a great crime family, in a way," Scorsese said from his Manhattan office. He was referring to Mao Tse-tung, who invaded Tibet in 1950 and later forced the 24-year-old lama into exile in India.

"I'm not talking about the Chinese people, I'm talking about his group that's in a position of power. And gangsters, they don't want to kill people, basically, they just want more."

It's classic Scorsese -- delivered at the director's signature tommy-gun velocity -- and it points up the fact that "Kundun" has more in common with Scorsese's earlier pictures than a cursory glance may suggest.

"Even on the sets of 'Good-Fellas' or 'Raging Bull,' very often in the fighting scenes we locked ourselves into a mood and a mind-set that was almost meditation," he said.

Scorsese, of course, is known as the Balanchine of operatic, almost erotically charged violence. Yet he sees no irony in examining the life of this era's most powerful exemplar of nonviolence.

"In a funny way, no matter how many times I've dealt with `D violence in films, whether it was 'Mean Streets' or 'Taxi Driver' or 'Raging Bull,' it automatically makes me think of the flip side of it," he explained. "What is the nature of nonviolence? Who is the stronger man? The man who hits, or the man who refuses to under any provocation? And this is ultimately where we're headed as a species. The decision has to be made: What part evolves over the other, the animal or the spiritual? Ultimately, 100,000 or 200,000 years from now, if we're still around, one of them is going to have to have evolved out."

Scorsese has long attributed his fascination with the yin and yang of violence and spirituality to his youth, which was spent in Little Italy, on New York's Lower East Side. Scorsese suffered from asthma as a child; his mother, Catherine, took him to movies in order to avoid the dust of the streets. Later, when television appeared, Scorsese immersed himself in the imaginary worlds of Westerns and historical epics.

He also looked out the window a lot, and the streets gave up stories that he's still telling.

"I grew up in an area where violence was a way in which a lot of people expressed themselves," he said. "And you had to harden yourself. You had to harden your heart. And you were trained in the street to almost enjoy it. Understand? At the same time I was going to church and hearing about compassion and kindness and love and nonviolence. And seeing a number of priests and nuns and people in the neighborhood who were very sweet and would never do that sort of thing. And they were happy."

Scorsese was intimately familiar with that peace of mind -- he wanted to be a priest until he decided to enter film school at New York University in the early 1960s -- but he said that experiencing it on the set of "Kundun" helped get him through a particularly difficult year. His mother, whom audiences knew from her appearances in "Italianamerican," "GoodFellas" and "Casino," passed away last January; and Scorsese's dog, Zoe, to whom his book "A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" is dedicated, died soon thereafter.

"All kinds of life changes, really a lot," Scorsese said of the period of loss. But the Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation did help. I've never been around a group of people as sweet. Never. It did help."

'These are not actors'

There are no Western actors in "Kundun" and very few professional performers. Scorsese cast mostly nonprofessional Tibetans living in India, Nepal and the United States, including the Dalai Lama's niece, who plays the lama's mother, and another relative who plays the lama's brother.

"The Tibetans themselves kept me grounded throughout the whole movie," said Scorsese, who noted that many of them traveled to the Morocco set under the threat of losing their jobs. "I pointed out to my production crew before we started shooting, I said: 'You gotta remember, these are not actors. These are not people who thought it would be fun to make a movie. These people are really representing their culture and their religion and their nation and everything else,' and I said: 'In a sense it's an act of worship. So keep that in mind.' "

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