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<-Back to WTN Archives Scorsese scores knockout with velvet glove
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World Tibet Network News

Saturday, January 17, 1998

2. Scorsese scores knockout with velvet glove

January 16, 1998
By Stephen Whitty

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Great art can sometimes work wonderfully on small canvases. Jane Austen
painted exquisite miniatures of genteel English life. Woody Allen has
stayed profitably uptown for years.

But sometimes it seems the greatest art comes from risks on a grander
and more reckless scale.

Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" emerges today as the year's most epic gamble.
Not because of its size (this is not a sweeping, David Lean-ish
travelogue). Not because of its cost (the whole movie was made for about
30 minutes worth of "Titanic"). But because of its tricky subject matter
of non-violence, and because of the director attempting to bring that
subject to the screen.

Yet, ironically, in these adventurous steps into new topics and foreign
territory, Scorsese remains on familiar and even friendly ground. Ignore
the rat-a-tat profanities and constant gore of "Mean Streets," the
bruised-knuckle brawling of "Raging Bull." Scorsese's movies have always
been about guilt and redemption, sacrifice and pain.

Scorsese has always been a Catholic artist, but this very Buddhist story
-- "Kundun" is the biography of the current Dalai Lama, from rural
toddlerhood until the 1959 invasion of Tibet -- has Christian elements,
too. There is something of the Nativity story in the details of how
traveling wise men came to hail a small child as a living god. There is
a great deal of the anguish of Gethsemane, as the non-violent Dalai Lama
huddles with his advisers, while a noose of soldiers draws ever tighter
around them.

There's also a certain amount of Hollywood myth invoked, as in any
Scorsese film. Certain compositions in the film's first set, a rural
hut, vaguely recall scenes in the weather-beaten cabin of John Ford's
"The Searchers." Close-ups of a careworn mother, hesitantly sending her
son away to a better but different life, evoke similar set-ups in Orson
Welles' "Citizen Kane."

But those invocations are there, not as film school pranks, but because
the movies are as much a part of Scorsese's childhood as the Latin Mass,
and their symbols as firmly integrated into his adult work. In some
ways, "Kundun" stands as a new turn in that work. Scorsese's palette of
colors is subtler than it's ever been. His storytelling is less linear,
with fantasy and flashbacks mixing like two rivers meeting at the sea.

Sometimes that effect is dreamy, almost delirious. Sometimes it's merely
confusing, particularly as the film buries itself deeper and deeper in
Tibetan culture. It would be helpful to most movie fans, for example, to
have some of these unfamiliar traditions explained. (If you don't know
about Tibet's reliance on oracles, the famous seer only looks like a
lunatic.) It would also be helpful to see what life was really like for
people in Tibet, once you stepped outside the tiny, all-male theocracy.
(Although the Chinese invaders are obviously the villains here, it's
hard to argue with their insistence that Tibet is a backward feudal

Despite its failings as explanatory journalism, however, "Kundun" works
marvelously as an epic. And it is still, stubbornly, a Scorsese epic --
told mostly indoors, in close-ups. (The one exception -- a breathtaking
crane shot rising above a field of slaughter -- is well worth the break
in style).

It is an undeniably transporting film. And it is helped immeasurably by
a completely unfamiliar, but largely professional cast, including Tenzin
Thuthob Tsarong as the young Dalai Lama, and dozens of exiled Tibetans
playing his advisers and friends. (Unlike "The Last Emperor," "Kundun"
offers us no wry blond guide to the East's eternal mysteries.)

Will audiences respond to this difficult film? That's hard to know. The
movie's pace is stately, and its actors are far from stars. Its Buddhist
hero's devotion to harmony keeps the plot remarkably devoid of the
crises and climaxes Hollywood movies are made of, and many movie fans
expect. It is a huge risk -- both for Scorsese and, it must be said, for
the Disney subsidiary that has released it.

But it is not a gamble that is out of character for its director, nor
even very far afield from the rest of his work. "You cannot liberate me,
General Tan," the Dalai Lama rebukes softly at one point. "I can only
liberate myself." It is a perfect and concise example of Buddhist
belief. Yet it is also a spiritual declaration that runs throughout the
work of Martin Scorsese -- and it comes as easily from the lips of this
Tibetan mystic as it might from the smart mouths of any of the
goodfellas who prowl his city's mean streets.

RATING NOTE: The film contains several bloody scenes of military

Articles in this Issue:
  1. ''Kundun'' might be Scorsese's masterpiece
  2. Scorsese scores knockout with velvet glove
  3. Glass work shatter proof

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