Seldom Scene
Movie reviews by Gerald Panio

Little Buddha (1993)

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.

Movie Information

Genre: Religion | Drama |Children
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Actors: Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaak, Ruocheng Ying, Alex Wiesendanger, Raju Lal, Greishma Makar Singh
Year: 1993
Original Review: July 1997


Movies Unlimited

I don’t usually include sites for ordering films in this section, but I still have my 1995 copy of the massive 750-page Movies Unlimited catalogue and it still gives me a nostalgic kick.  The print catalogue is as fun to browse as it ever was, with every page featuring a featured set of films based on actors or genre.  On one page it was five Pam Grier films, on another Jungle Thrills, on yet another three Sun Ra documentaries.  Who else would you have found a Gabriel Garcia Marquez-based box set next to The National Pastime: A History of Major League Baseball?  The online website is just as much fun to browse, allowing multiple search possibilities including actor, genre, studio, etc.  I’m happy to see that Movies Unlimited is still in business, and plan on ordering a copy of their latest catalogue for old times’ sake.

The 100 Best Anime Movies of All Time

Whether you’ve been an anime fan for a while, or have just become interested in this genre, authors Toussaint Egan and Jason DeMarco take you on an exceptionally fine guided tour of some of the world’s best animation on the Paste Magazine website.  I’m not an anime novice, but there were many titles here I’d never come across.  I won’t tell you what their top choices are, but counting down from #15 you have Metropolis, Barefoot Gen, Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, and Neo-Tokyo.  You’re unlikely to find a better overview of anime anywhere.  Dive in!  Then check out the rest of the Paste website.

Films Worth Talking About:

Schindler’s List, El Mariachi, Groundhog Day, Point of No Return, Falling Down, La Scorta (The Escort), Much Ado About Nothing, The Piano, Farewell My Concubine, The Scent of Green Papaya, Jurassic Park, Cliffhanger, Like Water for Chocolate, In the Line of Fire, Sleepless in Seattle, The Joy Luck Club, Short Cuts, Three Colors Blue, The Age of Innocence, Germinal, A Bronx Tale, Demolition Man, The Remains of the Day, Philadelphia, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Tombstone, Kalifornia, Cronos, Cool Runnings, Sonatine, Naked, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Mrs. Doubtfire, Menace II Society, Les Visiteurs, Raining Stones, The Blue Kite, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Benny & Joon

The Bigger Picture

FilmsKundun (1997), Seven Years in Tibet (1997)

Music:  Gorô Yamaguchi, A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky

Books:  the Buddhism section of the Internet Sacred Text Archive; Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha; the Buddhism section of Jack Miles’ magisterial The Norton Anthology of World Religions; The Teaching of Buddha, from the Buddhist Promoting Foundation; Jonathan Landaw, The Story of Buddha [an illustrated children’s edition from India’s Hemkunt Press]; Osamu Tezuka, Buddha [a massive 6-volume Japanese manga]

The Word on the Street

Simplistic, and of more value to young people than serious adults, but a more “realistic” dramatization of the subject might be too subtle for many viewers. This is perhaps the only movie I know of that deals directly with Buddhism from a western point of view, as opposed to Asian movies like those of Kurosawa, or such recent films as “Seven Years in Tibet” which deal more with the political and social aspects of Tibetan culture rather than Buddhism itself. Because Buddhism is drawing increasing interest in the West, a dramatization of the classic story of the Buddha is useful and entertaining. As a high school teacher, I have seriously recommended this film to students a number of times. The movie is well filmed, and, besides the traditional story of the Buddha,in its ancient Indian setting and with all of the mythical elements, it does gives insight into Tibetan culture, and can be linked to “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet” which are excellent, sympathetic films about this Asian country that has received so much undeserved harassment.  [les-35]

While I agree that the children in this movie are cloying and cutesy-pie and Bridget and Chris run the gamut of emotions from A to B, I think Keanu Reeves gives a calm, introspective performance, certainly better than a lot of his roles before or since. The best actors were the Buddhist monks and those from India. I feel this movie must be seen several times to get the full benefit, and it is a primer course in the Buddhist basics, but it is lovely nonetheless. I have the movie, and the soundtrack on both CD and tape (the most beautiful soundtrack I own). Ryuichi Sakamoto is a musical genius.  [joan-5]

This was one of the real notorious “Harvey Weinstein f***ed with my original version” movies from Miramax back in the day. Apparently Bertolucci hated Weinstein because of it, how he took away his director’s cut, and what we see today is a compromised edit (whether his full vision will ever be seen again, I have no idea).  [MisterWhiplash]

Little Buddha is the only popular western movie which addresses the story of the Buddha. We need others. At its center is a scripture known as the Heart Sutra, a very lovely and affirming tract.  [vquack]

The reincarnation was explained by Lama Norbu by using analogy of the tea. The tea in the cup is tea; thus, when the cup breaks and the tea spills, the spilled tea is still a tea. If we wipe the tea with a towel and squeeze it, it is still a tea. This analogy is given to explain how body can break, but mind goes on traveling from one body to another. The mind, unlike the body, cannot be destroyed.  [saniyaayt]

…there were many philosophical quotes in the movie like ‘If you tighten the string too much, it will snap and if you leave it too slack, it won’t play’, which explains the essence of the [Middle Way] philosophy of Buddhism and gives food for thought.  [madinakushukova]

…the choice of the colors was very successful in order to show the difference between the materialistic, rational West and the spiritual, mystical East. All American scenes were colored in cold blue and grey, while parts in the Kingdom Buthan were colored in bright vivid curcumin color.  [mirasukurova]

The only thing that makes the movie remotely watchable is the presence of real Tibetan monks in key roles. That and the sweeping shots of India and Bhutan.  [cgburton]

If I want to feel I’m back in ancient India, where your imagination leads you to see its colours and taste its spice and old world charm, I find reading any children’s book of Buddha’s life far more enriching and entertaining than this film. If you want an interesting intertwining of modern life and the thoughts of Siddharta Gautama, you might find listen to any talk by Ajahn Brahm on Youtube and it’ll be far more enriching.  [timozy]

…this movie terribly alters the teachings of Lord Buddha and Tibetan traditions. you can learn how they teach real reincarnations of Lamas by reading the book of autobiography of Lama Lobsang Rampa.  [sinhalaya]