In thinking of Martin Scorsese and his religious expressions (on film anyway) my brain quickly goes to The Last Temptation of Christ. That film exuded a kind of bold humanity onto Jesus Christ that no filmmaker had ever been able – or willing – to capture. In many ways I sort of expected that Kundun would capture the same brand of humanity and reasoning with The Dalai Lama. Sadly, this is not that film.
When I saw the movie back in 1997, I walked away from it scratching my head. I saw a great deal of pageantry. I saw a great deal of religious ritual. But I was at a loss to figure out exactly what the movie thought about the Dalai Lama.
The movie is based around the life of the 14th Dalai Lama, and as it goes, it raises some interesting ideas. There’s a scene early in the film in which the child is given a letter by the previous Dalai Lama who warns that China will overtake them. The child asks “What am I to do?” The adult reasons that since he is the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama that he himself wrote the letter and must understand it. That’s a terrible burden to put on a child, but I feel that it is also something that the movie never really deals with.
That problem with Kundun is that it never really sees the young Dalai Lama for his humanity. It sees him for all the religious symbolism that he stands for, but it seems afraid to explore him as a person. I don’t know what the problem is. Maybe Scorsese, having received death threats for his portrayal of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ was instructed to hold back a bit here. I’m not sure. This is a glorious looking film that raises a lot of interesting questions about a man it doesn’t seem willing to get to know.