The state of mind is Martin Scorsese's and his writer Melissa Mathison's sincere, admiring reverence for the Dalai Lama, called Kundun (The Presence) by his people. It is a well-meant, not too odd subject for former choir-boy Scorsese who, in ways clear and realistic or subtle and allusive, has often worked into his films tenets or values of Catholicism. It was no stretch for the director to expand into Tibetan mysticism -- although he has declared that his main interest in the film was visual.
Scorsese is a Prince of moviemakers and a Prince of cinephiles. I'm sure that those who write about cinema feel unease, even distress, whenever they deal with a Scorsese work that is not tops. It's like admitting in public the weaknesses of a best friend.
"Kundun" is a primarily visual homage to the current, and14th, Dalai Lama, a tribute to the people of Tibet, and a political protest against the country's being gobbled up by China in 1950.
The Dalai Lamas are a succession of reincarnations, and the manifestations of the Bodhisattva (Buddha) of Compassion. The film begins with the search for the new spiritual/temporal leader. He is to succeed the 13th Dalai Lama who passed away in 1935.
The14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso, was born in 1935 in a small village in north eastern Tibet to a peasant family. In the search for the new Dalai Lama he was "recognized" (i.e. identified as the next Dalai Lama) in 1937, at age two-and-a-half. In 1940 he was enthroned. But in 1959, after the failed revolt of his people against the Communist Chinese, he fled to exile in India with about 80,000 followers. Since1960, he has resided in Dharamsala, India, known as "Little Lhasa," the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-exile.
"Kundun" was a long-cherished project of Ms.Mathison. Her previous scripts were for "The Black Stallion," "E.T.," "The Escape Artist" and "The Indian in the Cupboard." Over the years, often assisted by her husband Harrison Ford, she interviewed the Dalai Lama. The latter had a big hand in changes and additions to the scenario.
The film follows the life of His Holiness (as he is referred to in all documents) from childhood to the flight to India. There are several beautiful moments, but the piousness of the production results in unintended aloofness from the subject and lack of dramatic tension. Its contemplative mood comes at the expense of story-telling and of orienting us. The Tibetan-Chinese conflict is shown without big dramatics --save for some stylized nightmares of HH --which is good. Yet excessive restraint overall givies the impression of something one might label "narrative soft-focus."
It would be fastidious to compare and analyze this work and Jean-Jacques Annaud's "Seven Years in Tibet," released shortly before "Kundun." Still, "Kundun"'s Holies vs.Heathens, with its veneer of mysticism, lack the power of the earlier picture. It is odd that in their Tibetan films, Frenchman Annaud made a kind of American action movie, while American Scorsese made a kind of "intellectual" French film.
By concentrating on discreet hagiography, "Kundun" forgets details that could be fascinating to Western audiences: the inner workings in the process of the search for a new Dalai Lama, for example (we get mostly people riding around); the tests to which the pre-Lama child is subjected (these are few and simplified); the true nature of the Dalai Lama as he grows up and attains adulthood.
Nowhere do we get presages of the now world-famous 14th Dalai Lama ,winner of a Nobel prize and an immense array of important honors; worldly, witty, highly cultivated. I remember, some years ago, his French radio broadcasts on philosophy and other matters. He was wonderfully eloquent, sharp, witty, more impressive than even star scholars.
"Kundun" was produced and filmed in Morocco, with some second-unit work in Idaho and British Columbia. The Moroccan adventure was a tour-de-force involving nature, sets, buildings, costumes, artifacts, jewelry, many (human) extras. Casting was not easy. The performers, almost exclusively Tibetans from all corners of the world, had no theatrical experience and had to speak English. Several of them are related to the characters they play.Their suprisingly competent acting ranges from very good to acceptable to caricatural (Chairman Mao).The flaw, however, is that as written, no character was given enough development or dimensionality.
All this is impressively photographed and staged, with gorgeous mandalas punctuating the sights. Yet, try as it can, most of "Kundun" did not look to me like Tibet. Annaud's movie made an infinitely better, more convincing choice by opting for the forbiding, snowy Andes as a stand-in for the Himalayas.
Avant-gardist Philip Glass's score begins nicely as a mix of Tibetan music and typical Glass repeated lines, but soon enough their merciless reiteration becomes annoyingly strident and monotonous.
Scorsese seems much more comfortable with mean streets and places. Reaching for profundity here he is out of his depth. The sum total of the film is that it seems to have been conceived as a work for the heart but turned out a work for the eye. Even then, the lack of muscle in "Kundun" rapidly makes the viewer unable to remember specific sights, as opposed to those indelible moments in great --even un-great-- movies.
Think, for instance, of Scorsese's "GoodFellas." Your inner eye and ear jump to many scenes, especially those of Joe Pesci's brutality and warped humor in the bar. Think of "Kundun," and very few scenes emerge, except perhaps those of the lively 2-year old future Dalai Lama repeating triumphantly "mine!"