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Seven Years in Tibet has a message in its mountains.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  In the 1980s, the hot issue for well-intentioned, "Think globally, act locally," socially conscious young Americans was apartheid. College students across the country built shantytowns to shame university administrators into divesting from South Africa and brought in exiled freedom fighters to speak about their experiences. Peter Gabriel's haunting "Biko" was the anthem of Amnesty International benefits from coast to coast. Large companies doing business with the white government faced pressure from activist shareholders.

Well, apartheid's gone now, and South Africa is on a rocky but so far steady road toward long-term democracy. There are still plenty of problems, but they're not the kind that lend themselves to big international protests and benefit concerts. So where's a would-be activist to turn? The answer, apparently, is Tibet, a beleaguered nation that offers a moral contrast—peace-loving monks versus vicious communist thugs—at least as stark as the old South Africa.

In addition to a pair of recent "Free Tibet" concerts featuring bands like the Beastie Boys and Radiohead, Tibet has become Hollywood's cause célèbre. It started with Richard Gere, a longtime friend and admirer of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled religious and political leader, and quickly spread to other actor activist types like Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. This is not, of course, a bad development. Tibet has been under brutal Chinese occupation for nearly 50 years, and it's a saga that deserves plenty of retelling amidst the Clintonian fawning over the "new China." But whether all the well-meaning activism makes for good cinema is another matter.

The first contender is Seven Years in Tibet, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer's best-selling memoir. Although the movie is ostensibly an adventure story, its political subtext is clear. It's hard to fault its intentions or, by and large, its execution. On the other hand, it's not a movie likely to linger with you long after you've left the theater.

The film's big drawing card is Brad Pitt, who looks perfect for the role of Harrer, the arrogant young Aryan who set off to conquer the Himalayas for Germany in the late '30s. (Although the movie is honest about his Nazi party membership, it paints him as largely indifferent to politics, a contention that recent revelations about Harrer's Nazi activism have thrown into question.) When Britain declares war on Germany, Harrer and his party are arrested as German agents in British-controlled India and sent to a POW camp. After several years, they stage a bold escape and Harrer and companion Petar Aufschnaiter (a restrained David Thewlis) head for the neutral territory of Tibet.

The first part of the film is exciting and visually breathtaking (shot on location in mountain ranges from the Himalayas themselves to the Alps and Andes). And Pitt is convincingly vain and unpleasant in the early going, although his ill-advised Austrian accent falters now and again; he occasionally sounds like a schoolboy imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But the second and more important half of the movie—with Harrer reaching and then settling in the sacred Tibetan capital of Lhasa—is more problematic. While Aufschnaiter marries a Tibetan woman and embraces the country's customs and culture, Harrer remains stand-offish—until, that is, he's brought for a meeting with the teenage Dalai Lama, revered since birth as the reincarnation of the "Living Buddha." The two become friends; Harrer tutors the boy in the ways of the West, and the playful Kundun (his informal name) helps Harrer understand the Tibetan philosophy of compassion and contemplation.

Showing a character's spiritual growth is a tricky thing, and neither Pitt nor Annaud—who favors big ideas, big vistas, and anthemic soundtracks (see previous films like Quest for Fire and The Name of the Rose)—is really up to it. Harrer writes letters home to a son he's never met and gnashes his teeth about how selfish he's been, but that's about as far as his evolution goes.

The film, with its staunchly Western viewpoint, can't help being a little patronizing in its depiction of the alien culture—the wise, simple people who show the egotistic Europeans that worldly achievements mean little. But even if the script's few attempts to explain Tibetan Buddhism come off like New Age platitudes, Annaud lovingly captures the beauty and mystery of its rites and rituals.

Still to come in the Tibetan movie wave is Kundun, Martin Scorsese's Dalai Lama biopic. It will be interesting to see whether a major artist like Scorsese can make major art out of such a political subject. In the meantime, Seven Years in Tibet has provided fodder for high school history classes everywhere, and that's not at all a bad thing. After all, the anti-apartheid movement may not have produced many great movies, but it sure as heck got rid of apartheid.

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