Kundun

on December 25, 1997 by Joseph McBride
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   A Martin Scorsese picture about nonviolence sounds like a contradiction in terms, but the director triumphantly pulls off the daunting creative challenge of telling the story of a living hero whose mission is "to love all living things." Made with the cooperation of the 14th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader now in exile in India, "Kundun" is both a stunning visual feast and a moving meditation on the difficulty of sustaining the Buddhist principle of nonviolence in a brutal world.
   Spanning 1937 through 1950, when the Dalai Lama was forced from Tibet by the conquering Communist Chinese, "Kundun" looks like no other Scorsese film. But like his trademark movies about Italian-American gangsters, this is also a story about a closed, male-run ethnic group fighting for survival against violent adversaries. It could be titled "Really Goodfellas." The suppression of base emotions gives "Kundun" a powerful tension and moments of welcome humor.
   While there are echoes of John Ford, David Lean and Frank Capra's "Lost Horizon" in the sumptuous visual style of Scorsese and cinematographer Roger Deakins, the impressionistic narrative takes a decidedly non-Western point of view. With its exotic locales, costumes and sets, and a cast composed entirely of Tibetan non-professionals, "Kundun" conveys deeply-felt reverence and uncompromising authenticity.
   Screenwriter Melissa Mathison's faithfulness to history gives the story more structure than is usual in Scorsese's work. Chronicling the Dalai Lama's discovery, training and adolescence, the film uses three well-chosen boys in the role before focusing on the young adult Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong. Tsarong movingly conveys the complex tests of character the evolving leader faces in the crisis with China.
   Even with Henry Kissinger enlisted to minimize the wrath of Beijing, "Kundun" won't be as easy to market as "Flubber." But it's a far more entertaining, as well as enlightening, movie. Starring Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong, Gyurme Tethong, Tulku Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Tenzin Yeshi Paichang and Tencho Gyalpo. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Melissa Mathison. Produced by Barbara DeFina. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for violent images. Running time: 134 min
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