Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) Movie Review

Reincarnation is a very strong belief that’s predominant in Asia, primarily in the sub-continent where  Hinduism and Buddhism are followed pretty extensively. Both the religions place a lot of faith in reincarnation and the school of Tibetan Buddhism places its belief on a much larger scale than one could possibly imagine. The Dalai Lama is the head of the Tibetan Buddhism sect and thereby the ruler of the state of Tibet.

As the film opens we learn that the 13th Dalai Lama is dead and the search for a new Dalai Lama is on. The 14th Dala Lama is found when a rebirth is confirmed. We see reverence for the new Dalai Lama from the minute the rebirth is confirmed. The discomforting thing here is that the reverence is not only from the good assembly of actors that Scorsese has at his disposal but from the master himself. Scorsese binds himself back due to this reverence he has for the spiritual guru that the biography tends to be about a saintly man with no interesting character traits. It has interesting episodes from the Dalai Lama’s life till he leaves Tibet for India but these are just episodes with no plot in them and hence fail to give us the man that Dalai Lama is.

kundunAny Martin Scorsese film has an aspect of spiritualism in it even though his early films have been about lowlifes, thugs, the mean streets of New York. There is a constant knowledge about sin and guilt in his films and for a film about a spiritual person, Kundun I feel isn’t about the real people that Scorsese films are about. Dalai Lama, sadly, comes across as a model, an ideal and not human which makes the film rather dull.

In the first few scenes we come to the realisation that this is going to be a film which will be a series of episodes put together that will come out as an act of devotion borne out of a desperation to find spirituality. When we keep that in my mind and go ahead to watch the movie, the good aspects of the movie come to us.

I don’t think that there has been a movie where  Roger Deakins has failed to capture the beauty of a place and it is no different here. The film is beautifully shot and to take us away from the lifelessness in Dalai Lama’s characterisation, we have the visuals full of colour and life. The lifelessness of Dalai Lama’s character doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have memorable moments. It does. A scene where Dalai Lama visualises himself standing among his people killed by the invading Chinese and pools of blood surrounding him is simply breathtaking but moments such as this are far and removed.

All the actors playing Dalai Lama at different ages do a good job and the supporting actors including Tsewang Migyur Khangsar as the Dalai Lama’s father, Tencho Gyalpo as his mother, Sonam Phuntsok as Reting Rimpoche, the man who finds him, Gyatso Lukhang as the Lord Chamberlain, and Tenzin Trinley as Ling Rimpoche, the Dalai Lama’s spiritual teacher, are equally credible. There are no problems when it comes to the acting department but with the kind of script in place, breathing life into characters is practically not possible.

Like a devotee elated at finally reaching the holy place, Scorsese looks at Dalai Lama with awestruck eyes and fails to bring us the man himself. Here we have an ideal and nothing more. Kundun has to arguably be the weakest film from the masters incredible palette. A flash of images, wonderful music by Philip Glass and a technically well rounded film that is let down by a shoddy script. Kundun is a mild film which shouldn’t remind us of Scorsese in the years to come.

Language : English | Running Time : 135 Minutes | Director : Martin Scorsese

Rating : 2.5/4



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