Kundun (1997) is a portrait of the early life of the boy recognized as the fourteenth reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, from his discovery at the age of two by a Lama in the guise of a servant, through the invasion of Tibet by Communist China in 1950, to his flight to India and exile from his homeland in 1959 at the age of 24. The title of the film, which comes from the honorific title of the Dalai Lama, means The Presence, as in the presence of the Buddha.
Melissa Mathison, screenwriter of The Black Stallion (1979) and E.T. (1982), met with the Dalai Lama in the 1990s to ask if she could write a film of his life. He gave her his blessing and his time, sitting for interviews that became the basis of her script. (The writing credit reads: "Screenplay by Melissa Mathison, Based on the life story of his holiness, the Dalai Lama"). As she explains it, he put his trust in her to guide his story to the big screen. You could say that the producers did as well when they took her suggestion to send the script to Martin Scorsese.
The director best known for such classics of urban alienation and violent lives as Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Departed (2006), is not the first artist one would think of to bring the story of Tibet's fourteenth Dalai Lama to the screen. But there is another side to the one-time Catholic altar boy who once considered entering the priesthood, a side seen in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), easily the most controversial portrait of the life of Christ and one of the few religious films to really grapple with the meaning of faith in spiritual terms.
"Compassion and love are the only way to go," says Scorsese in the documentary In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese. "The other way is violence.'' Kundun is surely the most gentle and meditative of Scorsese's films, a placid biography with the scope of an epic, the quality of a storybook, and the dramatic stakes of a tragedy. Scorsese observes the odyssey through the eyes of the boy treated almost like a king when he's taken from his rural family home to be raised and taught by Buddhist monks to take his place as the spiritual leader of Tibet. Those early scenes recall The Last Emperor (1987), and not just for its visual splendor and rich color, painted in austere images of glowing golden yellows and deep reds. It's a portrait of a child learning the scope of his power while his elders try to instill in him modesty and reflection.
Scorsese never shows violent conflict except through the newsreels, as if it all comes from another world, but he shows us that the Dalia Lama knows well the danger that faces him and his followers from Chairman Mao and Communist China. In one dream, blood pours into a fish pond, in another the bodies of hundreds of monks lay slaughtered at his feet, the camera pulling back to reveal untold numbers that will surely die in any armed confrontation. The unmistakable cyclical compositions of Philip Glass' score (which at times brings to mind the memorable music he wrote for Koyaanisqatsi, 1982) results in a chant-like backdrop to the drama and to the introspective direction. Glass's use of throat singers also adds a strange and beautiful human quality to the rumbling bass.
The largely Tibetan cast is made up entirely of non-professional actors, and Kundun's family members are portrayed by actual relatives of the Dalai Lama. Scorsese had planned to shoot in Tibet, but the permits did not come through in time so he took his crew and cast to Morocco, where he had previously shot The Last Temptation of Christ. In some cases, he shot on the very same locations and resorted to matte paintings of the Himalayas to evoke the mountain terrain of Tibet. If you look closely at the faces of the Communist Chinese soldiers in the invasion of Lhasa, you can see Indian and Tibetan faces, which Scorsese "cheated" by obscuring with dust and scarves and goggles.
Kundun is neither an introduction to the tenets of Buddhism nor a political rallying cry to free Tibet, though both echo through the background of the film. It's the story of the boy becoming both a spiritual leader and a modern man: a reformer within his own country and monastery, a simple man and sensitive young leader who observes the outside world through newsreels and movies (not to mention a fine telescope), and who perhaps would rather simply repair clocks and tinker with mechanical things than shoulder the responsibilities that will face him when he ascends to the throne. The teachings and philosophy are largely left to aphorisms and simple lessons, but the film has an awe of Buddhist ceremony and Tibetan culture, and a visual beauty and cinematic serenity in tune with the teachings of non-violence and Buddhist thought. There's an almost hypnotic balance of impressionist moments from his human life and formal, almost ritualistic scenes of his duty-bound responsibilities. Scorsese is too respectful to discover the human frailties and weaknesses of his hero, but his reverence is felt in every ritual and lesson.
Kundun was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography for Roger Deakins (who won the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle awards for his work) and Best Original Score for Philip Glass.
Producers: Barbara De Fina and Melissa Mathison
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Art Direction: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo (set decoration)
Music: Philip Glass
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker
Cast: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (Dalai Lama as adult), Tencho Gyalpo (Mother), Tenzin Topjar (Lobsang 5-10), Tsewang Migyur Khangsar (Father), Tenzin Lodoe (Takster).
by Sean Axmaker