Martin Scorsese's Kundun is a deeply ceremonial experience; it's like watching a serene pageant of colors, rituals, and costumes. It tracks the life of the Dalai Lama -- recognized as the fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion and the spiritual and political leader of Tibet -- from his childhood in 1937 through the Chinese invasion of his nation in 1949 and up to his exile to India in 1959. The Dalai Lama himself was involved in the shaping of Melissa Mathison's screenplay, yet despite his cooperation and the voluminous historical material at hand, Kundun -- it means "ocean of wisdom" -- doesn't feel like an "authorized" biopic.
Actually, it doesn't feel like any other movie, even others by Scorsese. One can of course spot thematic parallels and visual tropes related to the director's Taxi Driver (1976) and Casino (1995). Like Taxi Driver, Kundun offers up a world viewed through its protagonist's bright, brimming eyes. Everything that passes before them seems put there for the Dalai Lama's delectation. And as in Casino, the drama in Kundun -- such as it is -- lies in the onrush of the new order. In Casino the Vegas mob is driven back by modern marketeers; the Tibetans in Kundun are beaten down by Chinese communists.
But this sort of auteurist exegesis isn't a very profitable way to approach Scorsese's new film. That would be silly and wouldn't allow for what makes Kundun special -- the way it stands apart from his other work. In the film's press kit Mathison, who originated the screenplay years before Scorsese became involved, is quoted as saying: "Marty wasn't involved in the Tibetan cause. He didn't know Tibetans. He wasn't a student of the history of Buddhism. For him it's about imagery, and there are images of Tibet in his mind that he'd been nurturing for years. When he read the script they came alive for him."
What this means in practice is that at times Kundun has the formality of a silent film whose imagery has been worked up to a state of near abstraction. (I could've done without the you-are-getting-sleepy Philip Glass score.) Extreme closeups of holy water and Buddhist garb and colored swirls of sand all have a tactility. The film manages at once to be both sensual and ascetic. Scorsese's lifelong theme has been the opposition of the spirit and the flesh, and in Kundun we appear to be watching flesh as spirit. It's a resoundingly luminous world that we see.
Scorsese's imagistic approach to the story of the Dalai Lama is deliberately without psychological resonance. He's trying to turn a liability into a plus: Because Scorsese is so far removed from this world, he's gambling that, by presenting it through the Dalai Lama's eyes, he will achieve another kind of truth -- not psychological but spiritual. When we first see the Dalai Lama as a two-year-old boy, and later when he's five, he has a scampering innocence. But because he was chosen by Buddhist monks as the next Dalai Lama through a sacred process of divination, the boy is regarded as a deity even by his own family. Scorsese doesn't show us what it might have been like for the Dalai Lama to be treated as holy by his own mother. The boy's separation from family and friends and his assumption of divinity is presented as a fated formality.
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The director's rigor gives the film a fine formality of its own, but it's too limiting. Kundun might have been far richer emotionally if Scorsese had attempted to reconcile the sacred with the psychological. By coming down so cleanly on the side of the spiritual, he's creating a false split -- as if one could present this story only in devotional terms. In Satyajit Ray's 1960 masterpiece Devi -- a film Scorsese is known to admire -- there was no such split: It was about an Indian woman whose father-in-law is suddenly seized with the revelation that she is a goddess incarnate. Ray was able to bring out the deep mysteriousness of divine belief while at the same time getting at the psychological dimension of that belief.
Scorsese's devotional approach saps the film of any real momentum. He's not crass enough to pump Kundun full of false melodrama -- this is no Seven Years in Tibet. But we spend a lot of time gazing at Buddhist rituals enacted by players who resemble animated placards. The young adult Dalai Lama is played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who had never acted professionally before, and his entourage is comprised of similar Tibetan nonactors, some of whom have connections to the real Dalai Lama. They have an authenticity and a gravity that goes with the scenery, into which they tend to blend.
Mathison also scripted E.T. and The Black Stallion, and no doubt the wondrousness of those films, with their reverence for a child's animistic world, allowed her to empathize with the boy deity. Scorsese and Mathison want to infuse Kundun with that same wonder. It's a film with obvious political content -- the Chinese communist brutality is explicit -- but it's not political. It's more like a children's fable. I wanted to be transported by this movie; I wasn't quite. But I respect it. Scorsese is often lauded for "stretching" his talents when he makes something like The Age of Innocence, but Kundun is far more of a stretch. It shows off his whole new way of seeing. The reverence in this movie is not really for Tibetan Buddhism or the Dalai Lama. It's for Scorsese's love affair with the conundrums of imagery.
Written by Melissa Mathison; directed by Martin Scorsese; with Tenzu Thuntob Tsarong and Tencho Gyalpo.