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The Boston Phoenix Lhasa calling

Seven Years in Tibet is a postcard of a movie

By Gary Susman

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Written by Becky Johnston, based on the book by Heinrich Harrer. With Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong, Mako, Danny Denzongpa, Jetsun Pema, Lhakpa Tsamchoe, and Jamyang Wangchuk. A TriStar Pictures release. At the Copley Place, the Harvard Square, and the Circle and in the suburbs.

Seven Years in Tibet plays less like a movie than a grand, meticulously drafted blueprint for the movie it wants to be, the movie that its true story deserves. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud has demonstrated, in such films as The Bear and The Lover, a greater facility for beautiful images and striking natural tableaux than for well-rounded characters. Accordingly, he fills Tibet with breathtaking sights -- stunning mountain vistas (the Andes, land of llamas, stands in for the land of lamas), ornate fabrics and sculptures, Brad Pitt's glorious flaxen hair -- and with thousands of extras but few substantive characters.

It's a shame, because the film contains the bare bones of a remarkable tale. It's the story of Heinrich Harrer, who in the 1930s was a famous Austrian mountain climber -- and, it was recently revealed, a member of the Nazi SS. Today, Herr Harrer claims he joined the party only to further his career as a mountaineer, and indeed, though the film briefly mentions his affiliation, it has him leaving Austria in 1939, shortly before the war begins. The movie's Harrer has no ideology other than his own self-aggrandizement. Harrer joins an expedition to climb a Himalayan peak led by Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) -- largely for his own glory, but also to escape from his pregnant wife and the responsibility of impending fatherhood.

In the Himalayas, Harrer and Aufschnaiter endure many harrowing ordeals -- a lengthy internment in a British POW camp, a daring escape to Tibet (which was officially closed to foreigners), and a perilous journey to the capital, Lhasa. There, they find themselves surprisingly welcomed by an aristocracy eager for Western expertise. Harrer even becomes the tutor to the Dalai Lama (Jamyang Wangchuk), then a young boy.

The relationship between the eagerly curious boy and the worldly outsider is the heart of the film. For all that Harrer teaches him about the outside world, the Dalai Lama teaches Harrer more -- that he cannot be a substitute for the son Harrer has never seen, that enlightenment comes through renunciation of the ego, and that Harrer can't save him when newly Communist China brutally annexes Tibet.

This is that occasional Pitt movie in which he must act using resources other than his hair, as it's cut short for most of the film. He's certainly convincing in transforming Harrer from insufferably selfish into -- well, less selfish and somewhat chastened. More subtle work comes from Thewlis, essentially playing Harrer's conscience, and Wangchuk, as the ebullient yet preternaturally wise young lama.

Still, Becky (The Prince of Tides) Johnston's script reduces Harrer's odyssey into two cliché'd Hollywood themes, father-and-son reconciliation and an exotic culture tour through the eyes of a Westerner. Tibet nonetheless eludes Harrer's (and the film's) feeble attempts to grasp it, and it haunts the imagination in ways that Annaud's lovely visuals only hint at.

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