A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
At a midpoint in Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," the 14th Dalai Lama reads a letter from the 13th, prophesying that religion in Tibet will be destroyed by China--that he and his followers may have to wander helplessly like beggars. He says, "What can I do? I'm only a boy." His advisers say, "You are the man who wrote this letter. You must know what to do." This literal faith in reincarnation, in the belief that the child at the beginning of "Kundun" is the same man who died four years before the child was born, sets the film's underlying tone. "Kundun" is structured as the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, but he is simply a vessel for a larger life or spirit, continuing through centuries. That is the film's strength, and its curse. It provides a deep spirituality, but denies the Dalai Lama humanity; he is permitted certain little human touches, but is essentially an icon, not a man.
"Kundun" is like one of the popularized lives of the saints that Scorsese must have studied as a boy in Catholic grade school. I studied the same lives, which reduced the saints to a series of anecdotes. At the end of a typical episode, the saint says something wise, pointing out the lesson, and his listeners fall back in amazement and gratitude. The saint seems to stand above time, already knowing the answers and the outcome, consciously shaping his life as a series of parables.
In "Kundun," there is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama. Unlike Scorsese's portrait of Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ,"this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man. Although the film is wiser and more beautiful than Jean-Jacques Annaud's recent "Seven Years in Tibet," it lacks that film's more practical grounding; Scorsese and his writer, Melissa Mathison, are bedazzled by the Dalai Lama.
Once we understand that "Kundun" will not be a drama involving a plausible human character, we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion, an act even of spiritual desperation, flung into the eyes of 20th century materialism. The film's visuals and music are rich and inspiring, and like a mass by Bach or a Renaissance church painting, it exists as an aid to worship: It wants to enhance, not question.