Seeing Is Believing

area theaters, starts Friday

MARTIN SCORSESE'S Kundun not only tells the story of a great man's life, it is a movie about seeing, about having vision. It is probably the most empathetic, most visually immersive movie I have ever seen. Forget your virtual-reality goggles: This is a genuinely extra-dimensional experience.

The extra dimensions to Kundun are not just the visual space witnessed by its protagonist, the Dalai Lama, in masterfully shot and edited sequences of point-of-view activity, but also the dimensions of spirit and politics--or spirit as threatened by politics. More so than Red Corner or Seven Years in Tibet, but far more subtly, Kundun makes the case for Tibet's threatened freedom its core but not its obsession. I hope Henry Kissinger, appointed by Disney/Touchstone to protect its interests in China because of this movie, is doing his job, because Scorsese's lament over Tibet's victimhood is pretty unassailable.

In terms of story, Kundun does nothing too special--a clear and respectful script from Melissa Mathison (E.T.) sets up character, social structure, principles, and current events neatly. The movie simply follows the contours of the Dalai Lama's life. But since this is a story of an individual's growth, education, and enlightenment, coupled with the story of a country's parallel development through its emergence from antiquated policies, Scorsese knows that the story has to "educate" the audience as well. Much like a documentarist, he lets the movie re-enact the phenomenon of discovery--of how perception leads to cognition and ultimately to emotional involvement.

Scorsese's movies have a long history of this tendency, though usually the dizzying camera work and editing function more as flourishes of skill or as kinetic shocks. But anyone who's seen the famed "busy Sunday" segment near the end of GoodFellas (in which Ray Liotta rushes around doing much too much of everything) or the opening opera scene of The Age of Innocence (in which Richard E. Grant's gossiphound literally scans the audience for juicy possibilities) has already seen what Scorsese has in mind. He's juiced up on the excitement of sight, vision, movies, and the way they shape the world.

Empathy starts here with a first-person view from a little boy's bed--sideways--as his parents begin the day. The viewpoint continues as the boy, then the young man, peers through coarse robes, windows, brick walls, and especially a telescope. Other media assist his vision, leading him toward having a vision: He consults newsreels, Western newsmagazines, radio, and, just as importantly, the trance prophecies of an oracle. Everything about the Dalai Lama's life, and our understanding of it, is underscored as an individual's discovery of his connection to events and fellow spirits. It helps that Scorsese's cast is largely non-professional Tibetans, and that the four actors playing the Dalai Lama at various stages of life are so engaging. As they discover both truths and horrors, and eke out a right path, they don't grandstand. Except for some smug Chinese officials (especially a wickedly condescending Chairman Mao), the whole movie is filled with performances of good will and unadorned delivery.

Scorsese and his gifted, longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker once again pair up incidents to make their movie sneakily didactic. Not far removed from a catechism, the movie ritualizes coincidences of the personal and the political: As we hear the teenaged Dalai Lama recite the Four Noble Truths (concerning human suffering), on camera his telescope surveys his Tibetan subjects and lands on a man in shackles, who himself realizes he is being watched. Even more powerfully, the ceremonial dismemberment of the body of the Dalai Lama's dead father is paired with audio news about the takeover of China by Mao's communists.

Other directors have done this simultaneous-commentary trick before; Scorsese has no patent on it. But what he does uniquely with this subject is to give a richly material sensation of a largely spiritual experience. What is it like to be "the doctor and the nurse of all humanity"? How can it feel to be the "wish-fulfilling jewel"? Maybe, the movie suggests, it can be both awful and awe-ful--the individual can feel both solid and indistinct, a being constantly merged with his fellow beings. Spirituality is rarely the subject of any movie, but it's an extremely worthy (and difficult) goal to pursue. And so, thanks to Scorsese's vision, Roger Deakins's camera, Schoonmaker's editing, and Dante Ferretti's production design, Kundun is alive to the connections between and among human souls. It is so colorful, so sensitive and alive, that I walked out of it and everything I saw was familiar but vibrating, shouting at me to recognize its existence.

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