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Touchstone Video

Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong

Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Martin Scorsese

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Martin Scorsese built his career on explosively violent films, simmering with frustration, guilt, and rage. Religion has often played a heavy part in these stories, either as a volatile surface conflict or an unspoken driving force. In even his most sedate films, Scorsese nervously probes his characters until they break down and succumb to baser instincts. That is why Kundun, Scorsese's film about the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, is such an odd picture for the filmmaker.

Kundun starts in 1937, four years after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, as Buddhist monks locate his reincarnated spirit in a Tibetan toddler born on the Chinese border. The difficult child is self-confident to the point of brattiness, but he is able to recognize items he owned in his past life. Two years later, at the age of six, he is taken to the capital of Lhasa and paraded as the reborn spiritual leader, Kundun, "the compassionate one." Even though still a child, he assumes this role naturally and gracefully.

It is as a teenager that Kundun (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) confronts the conflict that will come to define his life: he is also the political leader of Tibet, and has inherited a long-running conflict with the Chinese, who, now under the communist leadership of Mao Tse Tsung (Robert Lin), plan to incorporate Tibet into the People's Republic. At first, Kundun abdicates responsibility due to his youth. Under pressure, however, he assumes control, insisting on non-violent resistance to the Chinese. Like true bastards, the Chinese take advantage of this pacifist resistance, and advance on Lhasa with brutal disregard. In his meetings with Kundun, smarmy Mao insists the invasion is for Tibet's own good.

Kundun is urged by his monks to flee the country before his is killed, but he stays with his people until he has no other options. Thus the movie ends as Kundun escapes to India and his life in exile — he still hasn't returned to his homeland — begins.

Kundun is a beautiful movie, with its grand scenery captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins like a National Geographic photo spread (it was filmed in Morocco, the United States, and Canada), but it lacks the urgency and invention normally infused in Scorsese's vision. Scorsese — like screenwriter Melissa Matthison (Mrs. Harrison Ford) — approaches the subject like an interested outsider, but in doing so removes the audience through his own lack of involvement. While most movies set in foreign cultures use an outsider character as a tool to facilitate the audience's introduction to, and gradual affection for, another people, Scorsese avoids this rather useful cliché. Left with only a main character whose actions and reactions are most subdued, this potentially powerful story feels only educational and minimally moving.

Religious figures in general make for poor movie subjects, as any faithful telling of their stories is anchored by a static, faultless central character who is of little dramatic interest. With The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese leapt this pitfall with a fictional consideration of a Jesus rife with human doubts and conflicts. Of course, nearly a priest himself, Scorsese also energized Last Temptation with a passionate dose of his own questions and doubts. Kundun lacks that personal commitment. Although this Dalai Lama is prey to some interesting conflicts, he handles them too stoically, only sharing his feelings in brief, yet powerful dreams.

So it comes to pass that what might have a been a great movie is merely good — and that's unfortunate.

Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and Dolby Digital 5.1. Music by Philip Glass. Trailer, snap case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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