At first glance, the guy who directed Joe Pesci kicking someone to a pulp in Goodfellas and viciously stabbing a man with a ballpoint pen in Casino does not seem like an obvious candidate to make a movie about the serenely nonviolent life of Tibet’s Dalai Lama. With Kundun, however, Martin Scorsese reveals quite another side to himself. “All my life I’ve been fascinated by characters who express themselves primarily in violence,” the 55-year-old director told Maclean’s last week, “but in so doing I’m always conscious of the flip side of it. What about compassion?”
Even in Scorsese’s most lacerating excursions into secular torment, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull, the promise of spiritual redemption is always there. But in Kundun it fills the screen, and the senses, with image after image of meditative beauty. In the hands of a less visionary director, it might seem naive. More than one film-making virtuoso has gone tripping into Buddhism and lost his bearings: Bernardo Bertolucci faced derision for casting Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha in Little Buddha (1994), and more recently, JeanJacques Annaud cast Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet, a clunker that turned the Dalai Lama into a sidekick for The Sexiest Man Alive. Kundun, however, is a spectacle for the soul. It unfolds as a feat of visual poetry, an incantation of costume, color and ritual that casts a rapturous spell, one so subtle and disarming that its magic is not fully apparent until the viewer steps out of the theatre to find the world strangely transformed: the most commonplace things suddenly seem imbued with grace.
Ushered along by a haunting score from composer Philip Glass, much of the action consists of patient ritual: the handling of sacred objects, the chants, the intricate painting of mandalas out of colored sand—and their equally beautiful destruction with the whisk of a broom. That, even more than the Chinese invasion of Tibet, is the film’s most astonishing act of violence—slow-motion shots of sand flying into rainbow whorls.
A drama almost eerily devoid of conflict, Scorsese’s epic traces the life story of the 14th Dalai Lama from 1937, when monks discovered him as a two-year-old child—proclaiming him the reincarnated Buddha—to 1959, when the tightening of Chinese rule in Tibet finally forced him into exile at the age of 24. Unlike Seven Years in Tibet, which portrays the same character from the viewpoint of a Western visitor (ex-Nazi mountaineer Heinrich Harrer), Kundun tells its story through the eyes of the Dalai Lama himself. And the movie is really about how he sees things—significantly, one of his more modern ritual objects is a bronze telescope, a counterpart to Scorsese’s lens.
Three actors play the Dalai Lama at various stages of growing up, and a fourth as an adult. The real-life Dalai Lama consulted closely on the script, which comes from E.T. screenwriter (and Harrison Ford’s wife) Melissa Mathison. The entire cast, meanwhile, is composed of Tibetans with no professional acting experience, several of them close to the Dalai Lama’s family. They include scholars, monks, an expert in Tibetan medicine, a restaurant owner and a Madison Avenue art director. The acting occasionally falters, but the commitment of the performers is so palpable that it hardly seems to matter.
“These Tibetans, they didn’t sit down and say, ‘I think it would be fun to be an actor for a year,’ ” says Scorsese. “They came to represent their culture and their country. They had a lot at stake, and that made it easier for me. They set the tone of the movie. When you’re with them and the costumes are on and they’re moving a certain way, a poetic rhythm takes over. I wasn’t going to fight it. You have to give in. You say, ‘OK, we don’t have traditional dramatic tension, so what else will the film give us?’ ” In the editing, the director adds, “a spiritual resonance” began to dictate a dreamlike narrative logic—“the film began to tell us how to cut it.”
But Scorsese makes it clear that he did not jump on Hollywood’s Buddhist bandwagon and undergo a conversion. “I’m still an American here in New York and I’m basically Catholic,” he says. On the phone from his office in Manhattan, he certainly doesn’t sound Buddhist. The voice is vintage New York, slicing off staccato phrases with a jagged cadence that still echoes the mean streets of his Italian-American childhood. “I grew up in an area that was pretty tough,” he says. “I watched members of my family walk a tightrope between organized crime and trying to earn a decent living. On the other hand, I’d find myself in church and hear this talk of compassion and tolerance and turning the other cheek.”
Scorsese has had a long-standing interest in comparative religion. While shooting his other religious movie, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in Morocco, he explored the Muslim faith. And he returned to Morocco once again to shoot Kundun, constructing detailed replicas of Tibetan architecture on a relatively modest budget of $40 million. Filming in Tibet, of course, was strictly out of the question, and Chinese authorities even tried to persuade Disney to kill the production altogether. Scorsese, as well as Annaud, had originally hoped to shoot in India. Denied permission, Scorsese chose Morocco while Annaud shot Seven Years in Tibet in Argentina.
It seems oddly redundant to have two movie crews methodically re-creating Lhasa on two different continents. And the convergence of two Tibet movies—along with the protests led by Buddhist actor Richard Gere during Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s North American visit last fall—has made Tibet a hot media topic in recent months. But Scorsese says: “We really didn’t want to be part of a trend. It took me a while to get this picture made. We had to make Casino first, and before you know it, there’s another Tibet film being made.” Adds the director: “I don’t really hang out in Hollywood. I’ve known Richard Gere for 20 years, but we don’t socialize.”
Although the media’s romance with Tibet helped get Kundun made, Scorsese says he finds the trend distressing. “Quite honestly, there are certain elements of the press in America that become very cynical. They use the phrase Tibetan Chic.’ It’s shocking, because they wouldn’t do it with other religions—would they say that of the Pope if he comes to America?”
Although Scorsese has not adopted Buddhism, he has managed to embrace it. “It has changed me to a certain extent,” he says. “I find there’s a certain peace of mind in the philosophy that might be of help ultimately.” Then he adds, laughing: “It doesn’t mean you’re not going to be aggravated on the movie set when it starts raining and it’s not supposed to.” □
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