The Flesh and the Spirit

Martin Scorsese's Kundun is a deeply ceremonial experience -- 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, to his eventual journey into exile in India in 1959. The Dalai Lama himself was involved in the shaping of Melissa Mathison's screenplay, and 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. There are, of course, thematic parallels and visual tropes one can spot in connection with 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 of approaching Scorsese's new film; it sounds silly and doesn'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 the imagery of which has been worked up to a state of near-abstraction. (I could've done without the you-are-getting-sleepy Philip Glass score.) Extreme close-ups of holy water and Buddhist garb and colored swirls of sand all have a tactility. Kundun manages to be both sensual and ascetic at once. 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's 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 at five years of age, 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.

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 (The Goddess), for example -- 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 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 ritual enacted by players who resemble animated placards. The young adult Dalai Lama is played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who has never acted before, and his entourage is similarly comprised of 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. (1982) and The Black Stallion (1979), and no doubt the wondrousness of those films, with their reverence for a child's animistic world, made her empathize with the boy-deity in Kundun. 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 (1993), but Kundun is far more of a stretch. It shows off a whole new way of seeing for the director. The reverence in this movie is not really for Tibetan Buddhism or the Dalai Lama. It's about Scorsese's love affair with the conundrums of imagery.

Kundun.
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Melissa Mathison. Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong and Tencho Gyalpo.

 
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