Living in a Spiritual Void

Seven Years in Tibet feels more like Seven Days in the Movie Theater. It refuses to come to life -- even when Brad Pitt, hirsute as a yak, wanders the frozen Himalayas with an Austrian accent that probably gave his dialogue coach the hives. The film's an epic about how an arrogant, real-life Austrian adventurer, Pitt's Heinrich Harrer, finds his spiritual salvation confabbing with the boy Dalai Lama. But there's no spirituality in the movie, just torpor.

It's possible that director Jean-Jacques Annaud thinks spirituality and torpor are the same thing. The heavy-going scenes plod on, and after a while the weighty nothingness gets to you. Having a religious experience has never seemed so much like snoozing.

We are first introduced to Harrer in 1939 as he leaves his pregnant wife in the lurch and sets off to conquer the Nanga Parbat peak in the Himalayas. Four previous expeditions for the fatherland have failed, but Harrer is a can-do Aryan -- and he has the yellow hair to prove it.

He's also an arrogant ass. When he and the rest of the mountaineering team led by Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) are captured and interned in a British POW camp in north India, Harrer achieves Olympian asshole status by refusing to participate in any escape attempts but his own. Finally he relents; the escape is successful, and he strikes off solo. Eventually he runs into Aufschnaiter out there in the barrenness. After much finger-numbing hardship, they smuggle themselves into Lhasa, the capital of the closed kingdom of Tibet.

You don't have to be a student of human nature -- or even of bad movies -- to realize what the filmmakers are up to here: Harrer is set up as a prize egomaniac just so we can savor his redemption when he finally meets the young Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk).

Seven Years in Tibet is pretty cut-and-dried: It says that first you're bad, and then you're good. But since there isn't much inner life in Bad Heinrich, it's difficult to care much about Good Heinrich. He teaches the boy about Western history and the solar system and even builds him a movie theater. (In one of the film's few witty touches, the diggers are told they must not harm a single worm.) But we never see the progress of Harrer's spiritual consciousness. Once he was arrogant; now he's meek. We might as well be witnessing a costume change.

In his 1953 book (also titled Seven Years in Tibet), Harrer described what it was like to survive the trek to Tibet and live in Lhasa. His unadorned descriptions are so much more vivid than anything in the movie that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered. Even their vistas are bland. (The film was shot mostly in Argentina and Canada.) Shouldn't a resounding feeling for nature be a prerequisite for a movie about spiritual transformation?

Annaud and screenwriter Becky Johnston are operating on a much more mundane plane. They order their spiritual transformations right out of the Hack Catalogue. Harrer's wife, you see, has divorced him, and his young son rejects his letters. Presto change-o, the relationship between Harrer and the Dalai Lama becomes the missing father-son bond in Harrer's life. A transcendent union is thus reduced to a fancy Freudian substitution. It's the purest of Hollywood ploys.

Virtue is never an easy thing for an actor to make exciting, and Pitt doesn't even try. His performance is depressed with good intentions. Maybe he thinks his legions of fans will be turned on by his newfound holy humility? With so little personality on view, Harrer turns into a photo spread for Aryanism. His bright blondness contrasts with the dark-haired Tibetans, and you can't help feeling that, for all their supposed "reverence" for the Tibetan way, the filmmakers pop their eyes only for Harrer. It's a form of aesthetic colonialism. Or maybe it's just aesthetic myopia.

That same myopia allows them to cast as a "love interest" a woman (Lhakpa Tsamchoe) who appears to be straight out of Vogue. She has high-fashion cheekbones and seems to be the only attractive woman in Tibet. The filmmakers can't summon the beauty in the ordinary Tibetan faces because they're locked inside a Westernized mindset.

Nor do they make convincing the transformation that occurs when the pacifist Lhasans, faced with the takeover of Tibet in 1952 by the communist Chinese, take up arms. It's not unusual in Hollywood movies to set up pacifism as an ideal only to knock it down. (Friendly Persuasion is the most famous example.) Still, the rapidity with which the pacifist ideal is jettisoned here makes you wonder what the movie is all about. Wouldn't the people who refuse to harm a worm feel at least conflicted about killing a human being? If the core of this film is the beauty of spiritual nonviolence, then why is it dealt with so cavalierly?

Perhaps it's because the filmmakers are aware that, on some basic level, Harrer's story is a con. After all, it's not as if he spent his 40-plus years after Tibet in a monastery. He spent them buzzing around the world gaining fame and fortune as an explorer. The film conveniently leaves out this epilogue. It also glosses over something far more troubling -- Harrer's Nazi past.

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