#18 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
I’ve now seen this movie three times, and after the first two viewings I was never able to develop any real thoughts on the experience. The first time was about fifteen years ago the first time I went through Scorsese’s filmography. The second time was a few months ago when I bought the Kino Lorber Blu-ray (which looks really good, by the way). I had intended to review it at the time, but I could not bring myself to come up with a strain of thought on the film during or afterwards. So, this third time I set out to have some thoughts about why I liked the movie but didn’t love it.
First and foremost, this movie is gorgeous to simply look at from beginning to end. Shot by Roger Deakins, the use of bright reds and yellows along with wonderful compositions framed by Scorsese is never less than a treat for the eyes. From the beginning with the young three year old child being discovered by the monks and regent to the Dalai Lama crossing the Indian border at the end, there’s stark aesthetic beauty on display. The other major thing is Philip Glass’s score. I like Philip Glass’s music, and the big, operatic music that mixes in oriental influences helps provide a deeper level of feeling, when combined with the beautiful images, makes the movie wonderful to watch. It also makes the movie feel like Koyaanisqatsi at times.
The problem with the movie, I think, is the Dalai Lama himself. He’s a really passive character. That’s most likely accurate to who he is and was as a real man at the time, but spending over two hours with a man who passively watches his country collapse isn’t the most compelling thing in the world. He’s a deeply spiritual and feeling man, but that is hard to get across when cast by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, a nonprofessional actor. His biggest emotional moments end up hidden by his hands. His readings are largely flat, which feels appropriate for a character in such control of his emotions and operates at a more even tone in general. I think he’s actually quite appropriately used most of the time, but his biggest emotional moments end up feeling clipped or even fake, like when he’s exhausted at the Indian border, begging entry, it feels fake. The best actors are Gyatso Lukhang as the Lord Chamberlain, who brings a strong sense of duty, remorse, and dedication to a restrained character, and Robert Lin as Mao, who is a suave monster, towering over the smaller Dalai Lama.
Scorsese said that he wanted to make a movie about the internal, and I do think he succeeded to a certain degree. It’s when the movie goes external that it feels wrong. Internally, Scorsese uses dialogue, editing, and even dreams to illuminate the inner life of the Dalai Lama. He’s a spiritual man in a physical world, and when China emerges from its civil war with Mao Zedong in control and asserts its claims on Tibet, there’s little that the Dalai Lama can do. His philosophy of non-violence precludes the use of force to fight off the incoming army. Even if he had the inclination, the Tibetan army was only five-thousand troops, nothing compared to the force that China eventually did send into the country. Because of the country’s remoteness, the only potential ally who could do anything was India, and it backed down from offering anything, even rhetorical support. He was a leader caught by a larger country with nothing he could do to prevent it. The story is really about the young man, a religious leader, seeing his convictions tested to their limits, and that, I think, leads me to a more pessimistic view of the film than I think is more generally given.
The movie ends with the Dalai Lama crossing the Indian border, having abandoned his country to Chinese rule. By the time the movie had released, China had ruled Tibet for over forty years. Now, it’s almost sixty years. His people aren’t free, and his victory only meant that he escaped, the head of the country leaving his country in the hands of a tyrant who hated everything the country was, for as Mao told the Dalai Lama, “Religion is poison.” Right before the Dalai Lama turns around and marches towards the border, covering the final few feet from his mount, he sees a vision of the men who guided him to the border slumped over their horses dead. His escape wasn’t a victory but a defeat. He carries on the essence of Tibet, but it may never get back to his homeland.
Scorsese has been banned from ever entering China because of this movie, and it’s easy to see why. It goes beyond the positive portrayal of the Dalai Lama and the acknowledgement that Tibet should not be a part of China. There’s an implicit acknowledgment that the religious, spiritual life is more fulfilling than the secular one represented by Mao and Communist China. The colors of Tibet are vibrant and beautiful. When the Tibetan delegation goes to Beijing, they wear their golden robes while everyone around them are in those drab gray suits worn by Mao. Life in Tibet seems more natural, like the early scenes in the Dalai Lama’s poor childhood where families gathered around a table, compared to the enforced indoctrination of the children singing national anthems along the Dalai Lama’s route to meet with Mao for the first time. Communist China seems dead spiritually and emotionally, and they spread that sickness to the vibrant Tibet through terroristic means.
The movie’s intelligent in its subject matter, but remote emotionally. This is something to be admired from a distance rather than engaged with fervently. Scorsese was trying something different here, going for a more intellectual approach rather than an emotional one, and I think he was moderately successful.