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MRQE Top Critic

Jaffa

Jaffa views the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through the lens of young love. —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Martin Scorsese’s films used to intimidate me. Because of his reputation, I felt obligated to appreciate them as deep film art rather than as great flicks. As much as I enjoyed them, I usually felt like I missed something.

I learned from Scorsese’s Casino that whatever techniques he uses are merely there to enhance the story. No mystical interpretation is required to appreciate his movies.

For example, in Casino he uses subtitles when Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are using code words with each other. There was no meaning more exotic than that subtitles were the most succinct way for him to tell the audience what was really going on. Or toward the end, when he uses three quick dissolves to compress a scene of a car backing away from a building. Again, the simple, mundane explanation is that it helped the pacing.

I don’t mean to say that his techniques are not creative or good-looking. But he simply uses the best tool for the job.

It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, that Kundun, a film about a mystical religion, actually turned out to be quite straightforward.

The movie follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. The movie’s title is another name for the Dalai Lama which means “Ocean of Wisdom.” His story is told in strict chronological order and there are only a few cinematic visions to embellish the literal story. (One of which makes an interesting statement: pay attention to the film’s opening shot and watch where it is repeated.)

We first glimpse the Dalai Lama when he is two years old. His curiosity and self-assuredness capture the attention of a monk wandering in search of the new Lama.

A test is arranged to see if this boy really is the reincarnation of the 13 Dalai Lamas who have gone before. Several items belonging to the previous Dalai Lama are laid before the boy alongside some other items. The child is asked if he recognizes any of the items as his own. The boy picks correctly, proving that he is the new, and the old, Dalai Lama.

Scorsese and long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker were kind enough to allow the possibility that the child was taking his cues from the monk. Before selecting an item, he would look at the monk, perhaps for some sort of confirmation. Sometimes he picked right the first time, and sometimes he made a second choice. Either way, whether through reincarnation or quick human perception, the Tibetans were assured of choosing a boy who could be a wise, perceptive leader.

From this point on, the boy is raised as the reincarnation of the Lama’s spirit and the future leader of a nation. It is a great weight to put on the mind of a child. In the U.S. it might be grounds for a call to Social Services. But the young Lama accepts his destiny without any apparent emotional damage. Neither the great power nor the awesome responsibility keeps him from becoming a genuinely likeable, well-rounded person.

Certain patterns take shape over the years. For example, the Dalai Lama is fascinated by technology. Radios, clocks, and telescopes are some of his favorite toys. When he is old enough to accept his leadership, he makes plans to modernize isolated Tibet.

He also has a soft spot for creatures who are suffering or in pain, including herd animals. It’s nearly a running gag that he will buy sheep to keep them from being herded to slaughter.

But the most ominous constant throughout his life is the presence and threat of Tibet’s gigantic neighbor, China. Tibet and its leaders prove correct in fearing China, as, first the propaganda, then the political pressure, and finally the armies, come across their common border.

The Chinese invasion is so successful that the Lama’s life is in danger if he stays. The movie ends when, after much agonizing, the Dalai Lama leaves Tibet for India.

The story doesn’t lead up to a cinematic climax as strongly as most feature films do. It just doesn’t fit that mold. If it were forced into such a shape it would have been a completely different movie (perhaps more like Seven Years in Tibet, which is good in its own right).

The pacing of Kundun is more calm and level than that. The structure of the film is made to fit the characters and events, not vice-versa. Perhaps because the pace is slower, we have more time to notice the beautiful art, vestments, and architecture of Tibet.

A mandala, (Tibetan sand painting) with beautiful, vibrant colors is shown throughout the movie. The robes and hats of state are bright red and gold. The bricks are a rich reddish brown, not unlike the skin tone of the Tibetans. Even the Touchstone pictures logo before the movie (which is usually light blue) is the red and gold of Tibet.

Philip Glass composed the music for Kundun, and he was the perfect choice. For those who don’t know of Glass, his music is like a Tibetan mandala. His building blocks are lots of small notes, tiny grains of music, which are first grouped, then repeated in patterns. These patterns create interesting textures which are themselves part of a larger composition.

People won’t be flocking to Kundun for it’s great ending, or talking about its outstanding plot, but it does have a lot to offer: an interesting lifetime, exotic sights, rich cinematography, and innovative music. It gives interesting insight into Tibetan Buddhism and takes a warm look at the Dalai Lama as a person.

On top of it all is the cinematic mastery of Martin Scorsese, who gives the film a strong, beautiful, consistent look.