Thursday, January 22, 2009
You have to admire Martin Scorsese. The man's been in the business for barely over 40 years and he's made 20 feature films, 4 major documentaries and numerous short films and anthology film contributions, and there's something to love about all of them. Scorsese claims he tries to do something once a year to keep him on his game, and it's almost unfathomable that he can churn out so many classics so consistently. But I may at last have found a film made after those rough and tumble early days that does not live up to the director's standard of excellence. By this of course I do not mean a bad film, but merely one I doubt I ever need to see again.
Kundun follows the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, from near infancy when a group of monks identify him as the reincarnated 13th Dalai Lama into adulthood where he must contend with the threat of Chinese invasion. Scorsese shows us a man with conflicts, but never inner ones. For someone thrust into the role of spiritual leader as a child, he never falters in his faith, and in his struggle against China he never forgets his teachings.
Kundun faces the threat of China from a young age. When he is still a child, Kundun reads a letter from the 13th Dalai Lama that prophesies China will decimate Tibet and scatter the survivors into the wind. "What can I do? I'm only a boy," he cries, to which his advisors respond, "You are the man who wrote this letter. You must know what to do." They put all their faith in a child because they so firmly believe in literal reincarnation.
Yet this pressure never brings about a crisis for Kundun. He never wavers in his faith, never stops preaching a message of nonviolence when some Tibetan peasant fight back against the invading and modern-equipped Chinese army, never flees until he must. He is a man totally at peace who must face a war.
Perhaps because of this the film never really engages the way we've come to expect from Scorsese. The director specializes in men and women torn by issues, always questioning themselves and ultimately reaching a point of clarity as the world turns to chaos around them. But Kundun is at a point of clarity almost from the start; where can he go from here?
If the film ultimately fails to engage on an emotional level, it will surely grab you with its visuals. Roger Deakins' impeccable cinematography makes the film look as though it sprung to life out of tapestries and manuscripts. Combined with Scorsese's typical camera flourishes, Kundun is one of the most beautiful films around.
But this same beauty, when applied to the aimless story, produces a coldness, a separation I've never felt in one of the master's films. Strange too; he navigated the labyrinth of social mores in the period piece The Age of Innocence and offered up a fascinating take on Jesus with The Last Temptation of Christ, but when he tried to combine hagiography with period epic something went awry.
Nevertheless, the film is certainly worth watching, and quite good on its own merits. It just never reaches Scorsese's standards, is all. Its detachment is a far cry from the man who consistently manages to turn characters inside out and examine them in very short time periods. But I did remember one scene that told me a great deal about Kundun, and felt at last like a Scorsese moment: the Dalai Lama meets with Chairman Mao in his attempt to forge a peaceful settlement. Mao remarks that "religion is dead," and a stunned Kundun can no longer look this man in the eye. That, I think, says more about Kundun that the rest of the film's 135 minutes.
Labels: Martin Scorsese