In the Spirit
Elbert Ventura on Kundun

Nearly two decades after its release, Kundun stands as the unremembered child in the Scorsese brood. No other fiction feature by the director has made less money, adjusted for inflation or not, in the last 30 years. While reviews were very good, some even ecstatic, the movie seems to have barely left an imprint on critical consciousness. This plight is best exemplified by the judgment of Jonathan Rosenbaum, longtime Scorsese skeptic, who gave the movie an atypical four out of four stars upon release, but has since reconsidered, noting, “Since I barely remember Kundun today, I’m pretty sure I must have overrated it.”

Even at the time of its release in 1997, Kundun seemed destined to be a curio—perhaps a time-capsule artifact of Hollywood’s faddish obsession with the Dalai Lama, or an experiment by a questing director who had finally secured a place in the Hollywood establishment. But, for me at least, whenever memory alighted upon Kundun in these intervening years, the sensations were poignant and intense: the lush golds and crimsons, the dreamlike dissolves and dollies, the transporting drone of Philip Glass’s score. From our vantage, it seems less a curveball now than a natural entry in one of the most eclectic filmographies in American cinema. (And, perhaps, due for a rediscovery with the 2015 release of Silence, a film about Christian missionaries in fifteenth-century Japan.) It presents a paradox that its maker no doubt would delight in: here is the strangest of all choices for our premier street poet, and yet a movie that could only be his.

Scorsese describes Kundun as a story he was “burning” to tell. It originated with a screenplay by Melissa Mathison, who wrote E.T., and its subject was no less beatific. To Western audiences who know only the broad strokes of the Dalai Lama’s tale of exile, Kundun proves an instructive origin narrative—but only to a point. Scorsese’s rendition is more immersive than explanatory. The movie begins with the discovery in 1937 of the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, a two-year-old boy named Lhamo, in a small village near Tibet’s border with China. The opening passage is suffused with childlike wonder—though the wonder belongs to the grown-ups. The object of their awe, the Dalai Lama as a toddler (played adorably by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang), couldn’t be more oblivious of his fate.

Fast forward to Lhamo as a five-year-old, ready to be spirited away to Lhasa by the monks. Renamed Tenzin Gyatso, he is inducted into a mysterious realm of spirituality and politics. Hints of palace intrigue seep into his monastic education; a looming, unnamed threat seems to gather force. By the time he is twelve, the threat is out in the open: China, a letter from his Holiness’s previous incarnation has foretold, will conquer Tibet and destroy its religion. The intimacy of the childhood scenes begins to fade, as world-historical problems of epic scope begin to rear their head. “What can I do? I am only a boy,” says the overwhelmed child-ruler.

The film’s last section hurtles onward to the Dalai Lama at eighteen, when he assumes full control of affairs of state, even as history seems to doom it. He meets Chairman Mao, who reassures him that China only wants to lift up Tibet—beginning with ridding the country of its addiction to superstition and religion. The Dalai Lama clings to his pacifist principles in the face of Chinese aggression. The Red Army encroaches; monks and citizens perish. In 1959, disguised as a soldier, the Dalai Lama is finally smuggled out of Lhasa into Dharamsala, just over the Indian border. The film ends with the Dalai Lama planting a telescope on a balcony in his new abode, peering through the lens at the homeland he may never see again.

The Dalai Lama’s indeterminate fate imbues the proceedings with poignancy. As if channeling his protagonist, the movie unfurls seemingly unbidden from memory. Recurring images of snow-capped mountains and urgent gliding shots past the walls and down the halls of the homes of his childhood have the feel of something half-remembered. Presenting everything through the Dalai Lama’s eyes, Kundun can be less than illuminating as a historical account. At various points, from boyhood to young adulthood, the young Dalai Lama gets a peek behind the curtain of the state apparatus. A trusted adviser is forced to resign; hints of a power struggle occasionally bubble up. We the viewers are forced to navigate these developments without so much as a cheat sheet. The effect can be disorienting—giddily so at times (especially early on), frustratingly so at others.

The details of palace intrigue or geopolitical maneuvering matter less than the fact that they exist at all. As with The Last Temptation of Christ, the juxtaposition of spiritual transcendence and earthly ugliness seems to be the point. But the comparison with Temptation isn’t especially flattering. The Dalai Lama in Kundun is a paragon of pacifism and serenity. He may be tested by events and other people, but he never breaks. It might make him an honorable human being, but it renders him a two-dimensional character. Compare that with Temptation’s genuinely tortured Jesus Christ, whose struggle with the fallen world is piercing and feels true. As Roger Ebert suggests in his comparison of the two movies, what’s conspicuous is that Jesus comes across as more fallible and human—hence more interesting—than the Dalai Lama.

You can’t blame Scorsese for treading lightly—he is depicting, after all, another people’s religion and beloved leader. But while the reverence is understandable, the effect is sometimes akin to spiritual tourism. It’s a movie that’s respectful to a fault, unable and unwilling to dig beneath the surface. There’s a remoteness to Kundun that isn’t quite fatal, but it can feel like watching a religious pageant from behind glass. For all its faults, however, the movie has a soul. What Kundun illuminated at the time that has since become more obvious is that Scorsese is one of cinema’s great ethnographers. We didn’t notice it as much when the deep dives were of his own milieu—the mean streets of Little Italy, the mobsters of his youth—but so much of the director’s cinema is motivated by a fascination with and love for specific cultures. You can see that curiosity in those fetishistic pans and dissolves in The Age of Innocence, or the probing, appalled gaze of The Wolf of Wall Street. (His prodigious output of nonfiction films in the last decade and a half speaks to this catholic interest.) In Kundun, the inquisitiveness is just as ardent, and apparent in every image. The picture has a density to it, packing in as much Tibetan ritual, superstition, behavior, and art as its frames can hold. Reverence for its subject may make for dull drama, but it yields a colorful tapestry.

From its Malickian first frames of Himalayan peaks to the lovely time-lapse shots of monks toiling over sand mandalas to the riveting last reel—a propulsive, kaleidoscopic passage depicting the Dalai Lama’s escape that’s as spectacular as anything Scorsese has committed to film—Kundun emerges as something of a contradiction: an overwhelming sensory display about the most serene man on earth. The experience of watching the movie can be an unusual one—ambivalence can easily give way to awe. The images sear themselves in memory: the violence visited upon Tibetans is expressed in the flower of blood that blooms in the clear waters of a koi pond. An adviser tells the Dalai Lama of kids being forced by Chinese soldiers to shoot their parents in the streets—a story interrupted by a shock cut to a wailing child pulling a trigger. In perhaps the film’s most remembered shot, the Dalai Lama stands in the middle of a sea of dead monks as the camera rises skyward, a nod to Gone with the Wind’s iconic shot of the wounded at the Atlanta rail yard.

These visual coups and many others can trigger the occasional doubt: is there not a fundamental mismatch in style and content here? Is Scorsese’s restless eye, so suited for New York and the present day, too frenetic for a movie like this? The voluptuous Kundun sees no incongruity. As much a man of religion as he is of movies, Scorsese presents here an aesthetics of the ravished. Depicting a religious conviction both familiar and fascinating, Scorsese the fellow supplicant responds with a movie that expresses what that conviction means to him. In Kundun, as in the films of Martin Scorsese, faith does not mean austerity—it is rapture.