There are many gorgeous shots in Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s meditative drama about the youth and early adulthood of the Dalai Lama, the messianic spiritual leader of Tibet. The landscape, with its arched snowy peaks and palaces etched into the earth, is almost lunar in its crystalline aridity, and Scorsese does eerie justice to the forbidding beauty of it all. What the movie doesn’t have is visual flow. The images are hermetic, almost literally pieced together; it’s hard to forget that you’re watching officially splendid cinematography.
Kundun is at once spectacular and inert—a mosaic impersonating a movie. As the story progresses from the ’30s through the ’50s, with the Dalai Lama played by one actor, then another, then another still, we’re denied a sense of how his temperament as an individual played against the demands of his pedestal. The great achievement of Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was the way it dramatized Jesus as man and deity. The director grasped the startling theatrical conflict in that duality. But Scorsese, lost in an outsider’s empathy for Tibet and its struggles, never gets close to the conflict at the heart of Buddhism—the acknowledgement that life is ”suffering” because its sensual demands can’t be truly fulfilled. There’s precious little sensuality in Kundun. Like Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (also the vision of an Italian Catholic), it’s an empty-shell epic, a Western sinner’s pious ode to the decorousness of Eastern mysticism. Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, who plays the Dalai Lama as an adult, is as cold and impassive as a Harvard preppie—he doesn’t show a trace of the real Dalai Lama’s sneaky joy—and when he finally meets Mao Zedong (Robert Lin), the dictator who is seeking to destroy his country, the supreme mass murderer of the 20th century just seems an effete clown. Scorsese has taken the harsh mystery out of Tibetan Buddhism, and out of its oppression, too. C