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"Kundun" is a pretty picture.

By Gary Susman

JANUARY 20, 1998:  KUNDUN, Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Melissa Mathison. With Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tencho Gyalpo, and Robert Lin. A Touchstone Pictures release.

One feels churlish for criticizing a film with as gorgeous a look and as noble a subject as Kundun. Yet Martin Scorsese's latest, though impeccable as a historical pageant, is less than a movie.

Although it recounts in great detail the Dalai Lama's life from 1937 (when monks determined that the two-year-old boy was the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama) to 1959 (when he left Tibet, fleeing the Chinese Communists, for an exile that continues to this day), Kundun is essentially devoid of plot, narrative drive, or even characters. It's as beautiful, evanescent, and insubstantial as a dream.

Fortunately Scorsese's omissions include Hollywood star power. This is not Seven Years in Tibet, in which the Buddhist leader's epic story was a mere backdrop to a white guy's journey of personal growth. The actors in Kundun are all Asians and unknowns, mostly Tibetans and nonprofessionals telling what is, in a sense, their own story. No Brad Pitt here to distract us with his radiant Brad-ness. That many of the cast have never acted before is irrelevant, since their duty here is merely to look the part and recite the largely perfunctory and expository dialogue. (Sure enough, someone tells His Holiness, "If you stay, we cannot guarantee your safety.")

Nonetheless, for a film whose title means "presence" ("Kundun" is one of the Dalai Lama's honorifics), its protagonist is scarcely present at all. He is played by a succession of four actors, from toddler to age 24, yet there is little sense of what he is like as a person. (He seemed a much more fully rounded character in Seven Years, where he was just a supporting player.) The two-year-old is entertainingly bratty and bossy, and the boy shows a hint of enthusiasm for learning about things outside his secluded realm of experience (movies, magazines, world geography). As a teen and a young man, however (played by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong), he is deadly earnest and impassive. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison (who scripted that other fable of death and rebirth and a messianic child being, E.T.) allowed the show biz-savvy Dalai Lama to emend her screenplay, which may explain the lack of any human quirks that might seem irreverent. (If the film's young leader has any defect, it's his modesty; he doubts his own leadership ability, untempered as it is by age or experience.) The messy emotions and inner turmoil that mark most Scorsese characters -- even his Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ -- are absent here. And where there is little humanity to transcend, there is little of the spiritual.

Still, Kundun is set in what is recognizably Scorsese territory, where all actions have moral and social consequences. The fate of his people are at stake in the Dalai Lama's every move, and he is slow to act, lest he make the wrong decision. Violence, when it comes, is swift, brutal, and artistically framed and composed.

It's no wonder that China threatened to boycott Disney over Kundun, which paints the Chinese as uniformly villainous (though no less one-dimensional than the saintly Tibetans). After China swallows up Tibet in 1950, the Dalai Lama tries to negotiate with Mao Zedong (Robert Lin), who quickly rips off his mask of bland politeness to reveal his true genocidal intent. Hints that the politics of the situation were more ambiguous, that there were palace intrigues that even the young ruler didn't know about (best line in the film: "The monks have guns?"), remain frustratingly undeveloped.

What Kundun does have, enough to make the film an intoxicating, rapturous experience (if only for the two hours that you're in the theater), is pageantry. Scorsese's celebrated eye for composition and camera placement has never been more evident. The painterly cinematography of Roger Deakins (honored by the Boston Society of Film Critics as the best of 1997), the montages of longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker, the lush and ornate costumes and production design of Dante Ferretti, and especially the pulsating, ethereal score of Philip Glass -- all are breathtaking and wondrous. Still, as they say on Broadway, no one ever leaves a musical humming the set design. All the filmmakers' technical prowess can't make the sequence of images that is Kundun cohere into a compelling drama or an unforgettable work of art.

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