THERE'S A BECOMING simplicity to "Kundun."
Martin Scorsese's recent films have been so mannered and extravagant and empty that I had given up hope of seeing Scorsese the director ever again emerge from behind Scorsese the camera choreographer. But "Kundun," the story of the early life of the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, clears the clutter out of his filmmaking in the same way that "The Last Temptation of Christ" did almost 10 years ago.
Watching the familiar Bible stories that Scorsese retold in that film made me feel like a kid eagerly asking, "And then what happened?" I felt the same way watching "Kundun." The film spans from the day the Dalai Lama was chosen, at age 2-and-a-half, to his exile from Tibet in 1959 at age 24. Scorsese tells this story as if it were a fairy tale about a boy chosen as the leader of his people who grows into the role by gaining the strength to resist the enemy who means to destroy him.
In "Last Temptation," Scorsese seemed to go straight to the fetishistic heart of Catholicism. Starting with the sand mandala we see in the opening credits, "Kundun" (the title is the honorific given the Tibetan spiritual leader; it means the Presence [of the Buddha]) is a very different picture in both tone and style, contemplative where "Last Temptation" was fevered. Scorsese means to be true to the life and spirit of his subject. Dramatically, that's not always satisfying -- the Buddhist principles of placidity and serene detachment don't make for heightened drama. But once you settle into the pace of the movie, you experience it as a continuous flow of incidents and images. Small moments resonate with meaning (like Kundun mimicking Chairman Mao as he refuses a Chinese invitation that's a transparent assassination set-up) or become suffused with emotion (the way Kundun greets his mother by touching foreheads with her).
Kundun's mother, by the way, is wonderfully played by Tencho Gyalpo, the real Dalai Lama's niece, who is, like almost all the cast, not a professional actor but a Tibetan living in exile.
As shot by the great British cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Sid and Nancy," "Stormy Monday"), "Kundun" might be described as chastely ravishing. Visually, the movie balances between sunshine (the animals that wander the grounds of the summer palace) and shadow (the interiors of temples where the candlelight gives flesh and objects a burnished glow). "Kundun," which was written by Melissa Mathison ("E.T.") from interviews conducted with the Dalai Lama, doesn't make you greedy for its images the way some gorgeous films do. It allows you to drink each one in tranquilly. And yet Scorsese and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, never dawdle. This movie about a man who believes in the transitory nature of the physical world has been made with a discipline new to Scorsese, a willingness to allow the most beautiful images he's ever put on screen slip through his fingers. He reminds me of the rare-stamp collector in the 1962 thriller "Charade" who accidentally gets hold of the most precious stamps ever printed and, when it comes time to give them up, says, "For a while they were mine. That is enough."
The movie critics I know, myself included, had been cracking wise about a flamboyant, violent director like Scorsese taking on the subject of Tibetan Buddhism. But it was clear he needed to do something different. I had no idea why I was watching the characters in Scorsese's last picture, "Casino," and I'm still not convinced he did, either. He seemed to be dealing with hoods and lowlifes strictly out of habit. Making a film about a completely unfamiliar culture turns out to have been the best thing Scorsese could have done. And the route that he finds into that culture is stories.
As a toddler, Kundun keeps pestering his family to tell him the story of the night he was born, the way some kids pester their parents to read the same bedtime story over and over. Later, in the monastery where he goes to live, the monks tell him tales of his previous incarnations. (Buddhists believe that the Dalai Lama is one spirit reincarnated again and again, as opposed to a man chosen to fill a role in the same way that the pope is elected.) How could Scorsese not get inside a little boy who's in love with stories? The tales that Kundun hears hold the same place in his life that movies must have held in Scorsese's when he was a child; they're legends that enthrall him and eventually become his life. It's both startling and witty when Scorsese grafts visual bits of Western movies onto this story. The holy men searching for the 14th Dalai Lama first appear on horseback like mysterious figures out of a Sergio Leone western. Mao (Robert Lin, playing the dictator like a fat, mean cat who purrs corruption), making a speech before a huge painting of himself, recalls the famous shot from "Citizen Kane." And there's a brief, horrifying image that echoes Scarlett O'Hara surrounded by the Confederate wounded in "Gone With the Wind."
The movie's best moments have roots that go much deeper. It's as if we're seeing things that have already passed into legend. In the most magical scene, the holy men who have been sent on a quest to find their leader's new incarnation test the toddler they believe might be the Dalai Lama's new incarnation (the delightful, open-faced 2-year-old Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) to see if he recognizes items from his most recent life. Belongings of the 13th Dalai Lama -- eyeglasses, a walking stick, a bell -- are placed on a table with similar objects (two pairs of eyeglasses, and so on). If the child chooses the things he possessed in his past life, he is the new leader. The sequence has a charmed inevitability; we know that the little boy will choose right just as we know the boy Arthur will pull the sword from the stone. I thought of Arthur again when Kundun, now a young man, must retreat as the Chinese advance. His followers prostrate themselves on the ground before him, begging him not to leave Tibet. It's a moment that recalls every Arthurian legend about the land and the leader being one.
Scorsese tells the early part of the story from the viewpoint of the young Kundun. Life in the monastery looks as strange and wondrous to him as it does to us, a pageant of color and ritual that he gradually accepts. (I loved that Scorsese doesn't explain the meaning of each ritual; he allows us to discover its emotional meaning even if we can't articulate its literal one.) Without the scenes of the young Kundun acting just as you'd expect a little boy to -- being distracted by the appearance of a rat during meditation or lording his new position over his older brother, a young monk -- I doubt whether the later scenes, where Kundun the young man is played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, would be so moving.
Tsarong gives a simple, becalmed and deeply touching performance. Without ever violating his character's peaceful demeanor, he allows you to feel Kundun's struggle to live up to the strength expected of him in facing the Chinese takeover. Of all filmmakers who've tackled religious subjects, Scorsese must be the least hamstrung by reverence, the most convincing at giving us religious figures as recognizable human beings, not distant godheads.
In "Kundun," Scorsese's hero works toward the enlightenment of understanding that "All is nothing." And on some level, perhaps that lesson is incompatible with a filmmaker of such volatile, crazy passions. I hope that we'll see that side of Scorsese again in material that's worthy of his talents. But I also hope that he's able to carry the exquisite balance he achieves here into his next projects. The camera pyrotechnics that Scorsese's work had been reduced to before this film could have been summed up by "All is nothing." The immense dignity and tranquil conviction of "Kundun" lets go of all that.