Brahma said: “Well, after hearing ten thousand explanations, a fool is no wiser. But an intelligent man needs only two thousand five hundred.” (from William Buck’s translation of the Mahabharata)
I wasn’t actually looking for a good children’s movie to review for this month’s column, but I stumbled across one anyway. Although the fact that it was directed by the same man responsible for Last Tango in Paris and a four-hour epic about Italian communists (1900) might make some parents a little nervous, there’s absolutely no need to worry. Trust me. The fact that it stars Keanu Reeves in the role of the Buddha might make other parents even more nervous. Once again, you’re just going to have to take my word that it’s all right. The movie I’m referring to is Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1994), and I have to confess that I, too, avoided this film for a couple of years because I questioned the sanity of anyone choosing Reeves to play one of history’s greatest religious leaders. Had I known Bertolucci was the director who’d made that choice, I might have had a little more faith.
There are, of course, dozens of movies (both mainstream Hollywood and independently-produced) retelling the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are produced in dozens of countries, and treat their subject matter with everything from unquestioning reverence to mocking heresy. Of late, several commercial films have also begun to touch on the spiritual traditions of the Native peoples of North America. But ours is not a culture which makes it easy to expose children to the great stories which underlie such powerful faiths as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. City dwellers, with access to full cable networks and their Vision and multicultural channels, are at a bit of an advantage here. Eastshorites [the author lives on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, Canada] might be able to track down some National Geographic-style documentaries (the Eastshore Community Library has some excellent ones), but these tend to fall short in the story-telling department.
Little Buddha hits the mark. It’s one big Classics Illustrated comic book version of Siddhartha Gautama’s search for enlightenment, interwoven with the story of a young Seattle boy who may or may not be the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan lama. It’s also, appropriately, the story of the boy’s father’s search for spiritual equilibrium after devastating personal loss.
By calling Little Buddha a cinematic comic book, I mean absolutely no disrespect. Exactly the opposite. I read (and loved) the Classics Illustrated versions of Hamlet, the Iliad, The Last of the Mohicans, and Moby Dick long before I encountered the originals. What other comic book would dare to put Hamlet’s entire “To be or not to be” soliloquy into a single word balloon? Classics Illustrated turned a lot of children on to some of the world’s great literature by laying down the basic stories with intelligence and style; Little Buddha does the same.
The film is wonderful to look at. The cinematographer was Vittorio Storaro, a three-time Oscar winner, and one of the most respected artists working in film today. It takes that kind of talent to capture the extraordinary visual richness of Tibetan Buddhist monastic life, and the fantastic worlds of Prince Siddhartha. Among my favorite scenes are those shot around Lama Norbu’s awe-inspiring monastery, and those showing Siddhartha’s confrontation with the demon Mara & his moment of enlightenment. The latter scenes represent Buddhism’s equivalent of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea: “All created things filled the morning air with their rejoicings and the earth quaked six ways with wonder. Ten thousand galaxies shuddered in awe as lotuses bloomed on every tree, turning the entire universe into a bouquet of flowers set whirling through the air.’”
There is one other scene in Little Buddha which captures Buddhism’s sense of spiritual power in alliance with spiritual calm. When Siddhartha first enters the forest to take up his life as an ascetic, an enormous cobra slithers up behind him, towers over him, seems about to destroy him and then spreads its hood over his head to shelter him from a breaking storm. Wow.
Does it matter that Keanu Reeves plays the Buddha? Not really. With his half-Hawaiian ancestry, there is enough of an Asiatic element in Reeve’s features to avoid incongruousness. Besides, playing great religious leaders is at best a thankless task. With the possible exception of Charlton Heston, who probably still occasionally forgets that he isn’t really Moses, the actors in religious epics are dwarfed by the scale of the story being told. However much of an honor it may be to be chosen to play Christ or the Buddha or Mary or Krishna, the scene is too vast to be stolen. I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe any actor (even Heston) has picked up an Academy Award for such a role. To put it another way, no one’s good enough to be typecast as the Buddha or Mohammed.
Apart from the clarity of the storytelling, there’s another important reason Little Buddha will appeal to your kids—three of the most important roles in the movie are played by children. One is the Seattle boy whom the endearing Lama Norbu (the film’s choicest role, played by Ruocheng Ying) invites to Nepal. Not wanting to give away more of the plot than necessary, I won’t tell you anything about the other two.
Lama Norbu is in the great tradition of gentle but wise mentors who can help shape our lives at any age. In Bertolucci’s film he is our guide into the extraordinary world of Tibetan Buddhism. He and the film also help remind us of what has been lost. For some 800 years Tibet served as an amazing model of a pacifist theocracy: a country which defended itself with an army of monks and an arsenal of ideas, rather than with soldiers and weapons. The attempted annihilation of this culture by the Chinese Communists is one of this century’s great crimes against humanity. Tibetan exiles still struggle to free their homeland. On the eve of the return of Hong Kong to China, it will be interesting to see if Hong Kong’s capitalist paradise will be more immune from fascist ideologues than Tibet’s theocratic one.
Also recommended are the Helmkut Press storybooks and Amar Chitra Katha comics found in our local Yasodhara Ashram bookstore. For kids (and grownups who know no shame), they’re a little more accessible than The Book of the Great Decease or the Dhammapada.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“It’s not that I have become a Buddhist, but I wanted to make a simple film that children would understand.” –Bernardo Bertolucci
The passage of time has not been kind to Little Buddha. In recent years, with the focus on a more inclusive cinema in terms of gender balance, LGBT representation, and greater ethnic diversity, a movie which features Keanu Reeves as the Buddha is not going to wear well. Even when Bernardo Bertolucci made the film back in 1993, I’m not sure what he was thinking in offering such a key role to an actor so unsuited to it. Try and imagine a leading Bollywood director offering a starring role in Krrish to Tom Cruise.
I don’t mean to be unkind. Perhaps we should just consider Little Buddha to be Bertolucci’s foray into YA (Young Adult) cinema. It is, after all, a good-hearted, compassionate film written around themes of tolerance, spiritual discovery, and the life-affirming qualities of faith. Ruocheng Ying is a breath of fresh air as Llama Norbu, whose unshakeable spiritual center and impish irreverence remind me of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man. It doesn’t hurt to lighten up a little. In these grim days when the media is dominated by stories about abuses of priestly power, it’s good to be reminded that there have always been, and always will be, religious role models who live up to the generous ideals of their faiths. As Leonard Cohen might have said, that’s how the light gets in.
No one could object to spending time with the three engaging young leads—Alex Wiesendanger, Raju Lal, and Greishma Makar Singh. Singh’s imperious, “Come, ignorant boys!” is one of my favorite lines. Interestingly, none of the three young people continued on in film. One of the finest elements of the storyline was the idea that Lama Norbu’s revered teacher would have been mischievous enough to finesse his own reincarnation through multiple hosts.
Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak do yeoman duty as modern American parents adrift in a rather fragile bubble of bourgeois comfort and spiritual anomie. To his credit, Keanu Reeves does his best with a role he should have passed on. I imagine he just wanted a chance to work with Bertolucci.
On the plus side, Little Buddha features the usual superb cinematography from Vittorio Storaro, a fine musical score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, ace editing by Pietro Scalia, and impeccable production design from James Acheson. Including Bertolucci, that’s a crew that’s garnered 11 Oscars in the course of their careers.
What else did I enjoy? The opening story of the goat and the high priest. The giant king cobra who suddenly appears to shelter Siddhartha from a rainstorm gives a true flavor of the larger-than-life storytelling we expect from India. Sadly, the climactic temptation scene, which could have been truly epic, falls considerably short. Bertolucci could take some lessons from the siren scene in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? All in all, Siddhartha’s path to nirvana is disappointingly abbreviated.
Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to show Little Buddha to my grandchildren. We’d have a lively conversation afterwards. But I’d have to follow it up with something like Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) or Krrish (2006) to keep the karma in balance.