Seven Years In Tibet

on October 10, 1997 by Kim Williamson
   Perhaps it's unfair to burden a simple movie with world concerns, but as an art form the cinema does deal with human concerns. Despite an intriguing story (adapting Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's book), a challenging mix of the ugly and the dashing in a lead performance by Brad Pitt, and a series of provocative locales and times, this Mandalay production fails to create an acceptable story of a man and his values even on the film's own terms.
   "I'm Austrian, I'm a climber, I have nothing to do with your silly war," Harrer (Pitt) tells a British officer as he is arrested in 1939 during a Himalayan ascent. Although a voluntary member of the Nazi party since 1933 (a fact not made clear in the film) and an SS athletic trainer (ditto), Harrer wants to conquer peaks, not peoples. Portrayed as a relentlessly cruel man, Harrer has already made a disaster of his marriage, which has borne him a son he has yet to see. Escaping from internment, Harrer and fellow climber Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) head into Tibet where, although the movie also muffs this point, Harrer apparently experiences a change of heart after befriending the young Dalai Lama (Jamyang Wangchuk) and, witness to the Chinese invasion, seeing how evil are transgressors like the Nazis. The movie ends in postwar Europe with father and son atop a mountain, flying a Tibetan flag. The air virtually rings with a supposed purity of heart.
   Although Harrer would have been in the thick of things for Kristalnacht and the creation of the early concentration camps, he was virtually in another world when World War II and the likes of Auschwitz were in full swing. But that world of his is also resolutely immoral: There is no mention made of an apology to his ruthlessly treated wife, and his eventual union with his boy occurs not because the boy needs him, but because Harrer decides he needs his son. The work of director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Lover") is undone by an unfulfilling script by Becky Johnston ("Prince of Tides"); in her story, not even a wealth of time spent with one of the holiest humans on earth could remake Harrer into the good man "Seven Years in Tibet" wants us to believe him to be.    Starring Brad Pitt, David Thewlis, B.D. Wong and Mako. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Written by Becky Johnston. Produced by Jean-Jacques Annaud, John H. Williams and Iain Smith. A TriStar release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for some violent sequences. Running time: 139 min. Screened at the Toronto fest.
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