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Kundun is one of the most disappointing movies of Martin Scorsese's career. Oh, it's a beautifully designed movie, with stunning landscapes, desolate snow-capped peaks, and isolated monasteries sitting atop hills. The visuals will frequently take your breath away. But dramatically, Kundun is a complete misfire.
Whereas Scorsese intimately knows the nuances of street life, as we've seen in movies such as Good Fellas and Mean Streets, the life of monks in Tibet remains a mystery to him. As Scorsese shows us the life of the Dalai Lama, from childhood through adulthood, we remain curiously at arm's length from the material, as if Scorsese were afraid to really show the human being behind the legend. We do indeed get several scenes with the young Dalai Lama, when he was just a precocious little boy who, at the age of two, demands to sit at the head of the family dining table. And we watch as the 2-year old boy passes tests designed to select the next Dalai Lama. "This is mine!" he says as he correctly chooses from a selection of items laid out before him. These scenes are fun to watch, but when it's time to give us an adult Dalai Lama, Scorsese gives us a void.
We gets tons of carefully spoken dialogue as the Dalai Lama and his advisors consider what to do about the political tension with China. And we get a fascinating scene where the Dalai Lama meets Mao Tse-tung: he listens quietly as Chairman Mao tells him "Religion is poison. It retards the mind of people and society. Tibet has been poisoned by religion . . . Your people have been poisoned and are inferior." But Kundun never becomes particularly compelling. In many respects, Kundun is similar to Gandhi and The Last Emperor, but Kundun never acquires the epic sweep of either of these movies. Seemingly by design, Scorsese avoids turning Kundun into an epic. He keeps the focus on the small moments of every day life, and in the process he creates a mundane movie. Even when Chinese soldiers and tanks invade Tibet, we remain isolated with the Dalai Lama in his monastery.
Instead of scenes with the encroaching Chinese military, we get meticulously crafted sand paintings. They're beautiful, yes, but not particularly dramatic. Whereas Bernardo Bertolucci gave us both the man and the spectacle in The Last Emperor, Scorsese can only give us a boy and some beautiful pictures.
[rating: 2 of 4 stars]