Martin Scorsese sets a mood of innocence and calm right at the beginning of Kundun. In Tibet, in 1937, after the thirteenth Dalai Lama has died, a holy man is looking for a little boy who will grow into the next living spirit of Buddha. He finds such a boy in a small mountain village; the child’s parents think their 2 1/2-year-old son is special – his birth was attended by mysterious happenings, and he definitely has a way about him, both self-possessed and gentle. The mood is rapt, tranquil; Scorsese conveys the charm of intelligent people who live by a sense of wonder. As the holy man poses a series of questions, there’s a suggestion that the child may be faking – that the eager monk has planted the idea of specialness in the boy’s head, and that he’s living up to the role. But it’s just a suggestion, quickly dispelled, and it becomes clear before long that this boy, as he grows into a teenager, has a spiritual calling. Kundun, the monks call him – he is Tenzin Gyatso (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong), the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the leader of the Tibetan people. The movie was shot in Morocco and cast with Tibetans living in exile – not trained actors but people apparently so disciplined that they can express what they are feeling through the simplest and most modest of means.
Unlike the fatuous, conventional Seven Years in Tibet, this movie has been made with love. It has an assured beauty and an exquisite formality that honor the subject. Roger Deakins’s camera moves easily across the mountains and through the sets designed to reproduce a famous temple in Lhasa. And yet, lovely as it is, Kundun is of very little dramatic interest – it’s an extremely beautiful, boring movie. The boy grows into a gracious and modest young man, a man not always sure that he’s up to the role of leader; but still, he has no great spiritual crisis, no awful time of testing, and everyone in Lhasa gathers around and tutors and protects him. It may seem odd to Westerners that Tibetans recognize this teenager as Buddha’s representative and, at the same time, instruct and correct him as if he were an ordinary young man, but it’s part of the meaning of the film. Spiritual grace is something given, something inherent; the boy matures into the near-divinity that was there inside him from the beginning. The raw edges and tumult of Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ – the striving and torment of a Jesus who was always in doubt – are nowhere in sight. Approaching an alien tradition, Scorsese is entirely respectful, and the respectfulness dulls out the movie.
There are recurring images of great contemplative beauty – the mountain peaks, the sand sculpture with colored grains being dropped to form a picture. Philip Glass’s music, with its repeated, chantlike figures, complements the stunning but placid images. But what, I wonder, can any director do with the subject of Buddhism and the Chinese invasion of Tibet? This nonviolent, religious country gets assaulted by a totalitarian dictatorship eager to extirpate religion. A slimy, patronizing Chairman Mao tells the Dalai Lama that “religion is poison” and proceeds to destroy a good part of Tibet’s heritage and culture. Except in a few of the Dalai Lama’s dreams, Scorsese won’t show the torment and death brought on by the Chinese. “They have taken away our silence,” one of the monks observes, in reproof of the insistent Communist people’s-chorus music suddenly blaring everywhere in Tibet. It is the most aggressive remark made by any of the Tibetans.
Not many of us are likely to respond the way we are clearly meant to respond – with deep satisfaction that the Tibetans maintained their dignity and emerged as the spiritual victors in their struggle with the Chinese. The elements of hope in this movie look rather wistful, even wan. As Orwell said, nonviolence worked for Gandhi because the British had a conscience to appeal to; it wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis or the Japanese in World War II – and it didn’t work against the Chinese Communists in Tibet. I can’t escape the feeling that Buddhism is an impossible subject for the movies. After all, great movie characters are men of overbearing will – Charles Foster Kane, or Vito and Michael Corleone, or Scorsese’s Jake La Motta – not characters who renounce will.