In the last third of his career, filmmaker Martin Scorsese has used celluloid almost entirely for charting messianic figures and characters beset by wicked forces. From that standpoint, his new feature, Kundun, about the early life and exile of the 14th Dalai Lama, makes perfect karmic sense.
Indeed, the life story of Tenzin Gyatso seems made to order for one of the director's personal themes, with its dynamic of internal conflict in the face of tremendous odds. But with one exception: Tenzin Gyatso is from rural Tibet, and at 2 years of age was recognized as the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. What does Scorsese, a cineast scripter of usually ultraviolent tales of American squalor and redemption, have in common with Buddhist Tibet?
Apparently, just enough. Kundun follows Bertolucci's model in chronicling the epic exploits of a foreign people, but begins in a rather humble setting, that of a simple family feeding and nurturing the leader-to-be. And although the scope of the film is enormous and Scorsese's cinematography abnormally sumptuous from frame to frame, this is basically a simple story simply told.
Tenzin the tyke is playful yet noble, as illustrated early in the film when he pulls apart two fighting scarab beetles, demonstrating an innate temperament for nonviolence. When Tenzin accepts his lineage and the tools that go with his political and religious standing, the ensuing scenes are dazzling and grand. Scorsese's shots practically gleam compassion. His long takes in the Potala Palace and of all its principals capture the serenity of Buddhist chants with an ease that belies Scorsese's outsider status.
By the Dalai Lama's 15th birthday, the Communist army of Chairman Mao had claimed Tibet as a part of China. Interestingly, Scorsese follows Melissa Mathison's script in laconic fashion, imparting little dramatic tension to the proceedings. Still, actor Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong is magnificent, and when he meets Robert Lin's Mao Tse-tung, theirs is a crossroads of exaltation and duplicity.
In struggling to comprehend Scorsese's 18th feature, numerous pundits have confusedly compared and contrasted it with The Last Temptation of Christ's basic tale of transcendence. That is a big part of it, but Scorsese's triumph here is one of steady perseverance, a metronomic narrative depicting a people's abiding struggle.
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