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Weekly Alibi The Dalai Lama Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Martin Scorsese is a long way from Brooklyn with "Kundun."

By Devin D. O'Leary

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Hollywood has got a collective case of the warm fuzzies these days. Oscar time always brings out the philanthropist in Tinseltown, and every November through January, we're guaranteed to catch plenty of PC proselytizing at our local cineplex. All the money-hungry studio execs can feel like they're doing God's work (and maybe earning a spot on Santa's "good" list) by turning out munificent message movies like Steven Spielberg's Amistad or Martin Scorsese's Kundun. Certainly, films have the ability to educate as well as entertain, and what more influential industry to steer the course of public opinion than Hollywood's dream factory? More and more, however, these films have begun to feel rather crass in their ability to jump on the latest Hollywood bandwagon. A few years ago, Hollywood's focus du jour was AIDS, and we were treated to a flurry of AIDS-related dramas; now that the "trend" has passed, you aren't likely to see so much as a red ribbon on Rodeo Drive. Hollywood's newest cause célèbre is the liberation of Tibet, and this winter both Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet and Martin Scorsese's Kundun nearly found themselves battling for box office space with almost identical topics.

Scorsese's take on the life and times of the Dalai Lama is certainly beautiful and undoubtedly heart-felt. Unfortunately, Scorsese's expended so much energy being reverent to his subject matter, that he's forgotten to inject any vigor into the proceedings. Known mostly for his blood-and-obscenity-laced, New York City-based crime films (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Scorsese seems a tad out of place laying garlands at the feet of the Buddha. Still, Scorsese does manage to sneak in one bodily dismemberment and a lot of male bonding, which must have made him feel a little bit more at home. The script by Melissa Mathison (known primarily for writing E.T. The Extraterrestrial and secondarily for marrying Harrison Ford) touches all the important bases but fails to alleviate the central problem in bringing the spiritual leader's tale to the big screen--there's simply no dramatic conflict here. Strange, considering all the horrors visited upon his Himalayan homeland. At the age of two and a half, young Tenzin Gyatso was recognized as the 14th incarnation of the Dalai Lama and promptly handed his position as the secular and spiritual leader of all Tibet. Kundun, as he was called, spent his entire life isolated in the Holy City of Lhasa being instructed as a monk. In the 1950s, the Chinese government completely devastated Tibet, snatching its land and slaughtering its people. Unfortunately, the highly cloistered Dalai Lama never witnessed any of the atrocities brought upon his people firsthand. Scorsese tosses in a couple bloody "visions" for the Dalai Lama to experience, but it's hard to get a handle on what really happened to Tibet by focusing entirely on the Dalai Lama. When the Chinese finally took over, he left the country. End of story.

By insisting on using nothing but actual Tibetans, Scorsese has certainly achieved an admirable level of accuracy. All of the actors, none of them professional, are quite believable. Morocco seems to have served as a workable and picturesque substitute for the mountains of Tibet. And scenes of the dazzling, intricate Tibetan art of sandpainting are woven dream-like throughout the film. Scorsese has certainly created a beautiful, loving portrait of this lost nation and its deeply spiritual people.

Without a doubt, this is a story that needs repeating. China's virtual extermination of Tibet was an absolute atrocity and should be brought to light all across the world. If you know nothing about Tibet (and few do), then Kundun is not the worst place to begin. But--flawed though it was--I actually found Seven Years in Tibet to be a more compelling portrait of the Dalai Lama and his nation. Filtering this exquisitely foreign land through the eyes of a Westerner (even if he was a Nazi) may have been the best way to guide an audience. Seven Years was also a better film dramatically, giving us a flawed hero with a crucial character arc (from blind narcissism to wide-eyed compassion) through which we, the viewers, were able to achieve enlightenment. The Dalai Lama, being the perfect and unflawed incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, isn't exactly the easiest protagonist to identify with.

I've already received a certain amount of flak for daring to criticize this film--as if disliking the film amounted to disliking the Tibetan people. As if finding flaw in a film was tantamount to a lack of compassion for the people it depicts. There is a difference between movies and real life. Real life rarely has a point. It just is. Movies, though, do have a point. They are works of art. In two scant hours, they must engage, entertain and enlighten. Movies that imitate life, as Scorsese's Kundun does, must root out the dramatic heart of their subject. Kundun remains like a technically proficient painting--gorgeous and well-done--but inert and emotionally distanced from its subject.

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