Alex Wiesendanger (third from left) in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Photo by Angelo Novi/Courtesy Miramax Films.
Alex Wiesendanger (third from left) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Photo by Angelo Novi/Courtesy Miramax Films.

There is no film director I admire more than Bernardo Bertolucci. Not only has he consistently challenged, extended, and tried to transcend himself, but he has also rarely settled for mere beauty or simple poetry. Instead, he has tried to concentrate on something inward and disturbing, on forces that generate a transformation of audience and of self. Encircled by a loyal and spectacularly talented crew (especially Vittorio Storaro, the most elegant cinematographer around, and James Acheson, who catches huge historical patterns through an interplay of costumes and colors), he has increasingly enlightened and surprised the rest of us by taking himself and his team off to the deepest recesses of the world and soul. If anyone could bring the essence and struggle of Buddhism to a mass-market audience, I kept telling friends, it would be this prizewinning poet and his thirteen-Oscar crew. I was completely shocked, then, to find that the film itself was one of the greatest disappointments in memory.

So disappointing, in fact, that it could make The Ten Commandments seem understated by comparison (twice, emerging from the cinema, I heard the dread name of deMille). For me, almost every aspect of it was startlingly, even willfully, bad: a script that could have given even mistranslated Kahlil Gibran a bad name (“O lord of my own ego, you are pure illusion”); a version of Prince Siddhartha’s life that shows him performing stunts before five zanies and all but concludes with his lecturing five spellbound cows in a stream; and a high-tech interlude in Seattle that involves such thumping declarations as “It’s Evan. He’s bankrupt!” (a difficult line to gauge since we don’t know who Evan is, or what in the world his bankruptcy might mean). Amateur actors here take inaction to new, extraordinary heights (when Chris Isaak mumbles robotically, “It’s been a kind of emotional time for all of us,” there were wild hoots of laughter all around me), and even visual beauty seldom seems to go beyond postcard vistas to images that truly trouble or exalt. This is a version of the comic book The Magic Life of Milarepa with a $35 million budget and an art director.

Yet the greatest loss of all is that Buddhism is transformed here into an extraterrestrial product of Industrial Light and Magic. Not a single real teaching of the Buddha’s is shown, and instead of any of the Four Noble Truths, or any of the Buddha’s actual disciples, we get five clownish ascetics and a sci-fi rendition of Mara’s temptations (the last we see of the Awakened One). Monks in the film keep talking about compassion, but there is not a single act of compassion—or, really, of human interaction and fellowship—in the entire 120 minutes. Someone who knew nothing about Buddhism before the film began would come away with a murky sense of smiling aliens in colorful robes who suddenly descend on a little boy and provide him with a versian of E.T. for the nineties—some strange and cuddly companions who can whisk him off into the heavens.

The greatest problem with instant New Age Buddhism, I have often heard, is that it stresses reincarnation at the expense of karma, that is, emphasizes the glamour of other lives (I could have been Cleopatra, I could be the person who finds a cure for AIDS) without ever wrestling with the moral and emotional consequences of this one. By this token, Little Buddha is a particularly sad loss, since it transforms Buddhism into a kind of magic vehicle that involves little more than the fancy transmigration of souls. In its way, it performs an even greater disservice to the discipline than simply disparaging it; it romanticizes it out of existence, turning it into a kind of special effect with no apparent application in the here and now. It makes Buddhism not closer to our daily lives, but more remote. And instead of providing a simple primer to some of the precepts of the Buddha—an A-B-C of Buddhism, as it were—it provides an A-L-I-E-N.

The problems begin, for me, with the title itself, which manages not only to domesticate, but to diminish its subject; already, the emphasis is not on the teaching or even the person, but on some cutesy cartoon of him. Bertolucci has said that he was making a film that his children could see, and one of the key lines at the end of the film is, “Children, we’re all children.” But making a film for children does not mean making a film stripped of all thought or feeling, or simplified into a comic-book sense of what children might like (a movie like Beauty and the Beast, for example, provides a highly grown-up look at loss and love and transformation that every child can enjoy).

At its best, you could say that the film is a charmingly whimsical and playful retelling of Siddhartha’s story that does not take itself too seriously. If so, however, I wonder why the filmmakers chose Siddhartha’s life (which has so little value without its meaning) to have fun with, and I was left with the suspicion that when highly intellectual and sophisticated people try to cater to children, the stretch may be so great that they end up stooping far too low.

It must be said right here that Keanu Reeves, contrary to expectation, is fine: he looks the part, he tries valiantly to sound the part, and he does as much as is inhumanly possible with the lines he is asked to deliver (“The path to enlightenment is in the Middle Way,” he gasps at one point. “It is the line between all opposite extremes!”). The casting of a box-office draw in a relatively simple and uncommercial project strikes me, in fact, as a fine way to try to extend the film’s appeal, and even a Robert De Niro could do little with lines like “Father, I must find the answer to suffering!” or “What is this feeling I have?” If this film sometimes seems like Buddha and Sid’s Excellent Adventure, it is not Reeves’ fault.

The people around him, however, are uniformly weak. Surrounded by a father who is incomprehensible and a wife who’s decidedly unappealing, he has every reason to want to flee his palace. And in any case, the luxurious world of his pleasure-garden seems scarcely different from the golden-lit, pastoral world he discovers outside it. Suffering is simply two men without teeth, and when he asks to see death, he is simply shown a dead body (which obligingly moves—in this movie, dead men often move more vigorously than live ones).

The second part of the story, in which a group of Tibetan lamas travel to Seattle to check out a little boy called Jesse as a possible incarnation, has lots of flashy camera work involving mirrors and reflections and (I assume) images of division and self-regard that take us back to The Conformist of twenty-five years ago. Yet the circle of visiting lamas is described, all too aptly, as “a little distraction,” and the boy’s trendy parents, played by Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda, are turned into a pair who now fondle ardently, now gaze off into the dark. Bridget Fonda, for me, almost becomes a liability here, because she is the one true actor in the film, and her moments of emotion (in a film where there are lots of tears but very few feelings) are so subtle and real, so suggestive of a true sense of struggle and pain, that they throw into relief all the non-acting around her. Luckily, she is punished for her skills by being dropped from the movie midway.

The biggest problem, though, is that Chris Isaak’s affectlessness sets the tone for the whole movie. For what is lacking most of all is a real sense of feeling, of inwardness, of humanity. Everything is shown larger-than-life or italicized, so that we have no human anchor, nothing to ground us amid the temples and the lamas. What so distinguished even The Last Emperor (not to mention The Sheltering Sky) was its strangeness, its impatience with conventional roles, its determination to follow the human heart into something interior and haunting, something deeper than the rites of epic or the larger forms of history. But here it seems almost as if the same filmmakers who looked so shrewdly at Maoism and alienation have been spellbound before Buddhism, as if they could only conceive of it with a huge “B,” as something belonging to a distant world (even Lost Horizon had more application to daily life, and even Siddhartha had more beauty).

Thus the Buddha himself leaves the film at just the moment when he begins to share his teachings with the world (disappearing, a triumphant Luke Skywalker, after disposing of the last of the meanies) and the Tibetan lamas are shown as odd-looking men delivering fortune-cookie aphorisms (“No room will be empty if your mind is full”). On the rare occasions when Buddhist practices are described, they seem further and further from human life and human sympathy (meditation, says one lama, means “separating yourself from everything around you”). And one scene—in which a lama wonderfully describes reincarnation by showing how tea remains tea even when the cup in which it’s contained is broken, gives us a tantalizing sense of all the lucid examples that could have been provided.

About three quarters of the way into it, the film improves and begins to pick up, as the filmmakers find at last the movie they’ve been trying to make. Suddenly there is a sense of reality as we travel into Nepal, and into the temples of Bhutan, and when a little boy called Raju (plucked from the streets of Delhi) cavorts onto the screen, suddenly we are presented with a figure of discernible energy and verisimilitude. Ying Ruocheng, the Chinese acror who plays the main lama, begins to gain strength and pathos as he moves closer to death. Best of all, the film finally lets the silences speak: at last Bertolucci and his crew do what they do so wonderfully, which is to catch light, and sound, and simple wonder, and to forgo all dialogue in a scene whose power they capture movingly. Toward its end, the film becomes almost a sustained monastic chant, and, suddenly, we are in a place much deeper than words, with a sense of what must have attracted these Westerners to Buddhism in the first place. For me, the film finally becomes touching when, for the first time, people actually touch (Jesse and Raju casually hold hands, and, when the lama touches the little boy’s head with his own, there is a shock of intimacy after all the disconnections the movie has shown). One final image of a dead lama, wrapped under a white scarf like a melted candle, says more about mortality and the frailty of the “self” than the rest of the film put together.

Thus the film does leave one with a good taste, and its final rounding out of cycles, with a lama’s ashes thrown into the elements, and birth following naturally upon death, works sweetly. Left alone in Bhutanese monasteries that have never been caught on film before, Bertolucci and his movable feast evoke mystery and majesty and a beauty deeper than mere exoticism. The lamas (played by real lamas) are true in their smallest gestures, and all the trademark Storaro touches are in place—a red-and-golden light that seems to elevate the things it gilds; a signature shot of men moving, like faint shadows, behind curtains; a sense of individuals wandering around spaces and forces far greater than themselves. A single image of Chris Isaak meandering through the temple says a lot more than any of Isaak’s muttered lines.

But still, even here, one senses too great an anxiety to be “relevant.” A recurrent image of a bowl floating upstream seems a little like the Buddhist equivalent of a man walking on water (there are several early, desperate attempts to liken Buddha to Jesus), and the final resolution of a difficult succession issue—don’t worry, all three candidates can be true lamas!—makes the notion of incarnation seem like a multicultural junior version of Studs. And even here, amidst the pretty symmetry of
water images, the paralleling of taxi journeys, the way gestures and scenes from the life of Siddhartha find new life in the world of Jesse, there is sloppiness aplenty: some of the actors pronounce Bhutan with a long “a,” some with a short (putting the “tan” back into “Bhutan”); and a boy from Seattle is shown improbably swathed in Oakland A’s regalia.

I must confess that I deeply admire Bertolucci for having the courage to make a film that many will deride, and for seeing that it is much harder, and more important, to move from sophistication to innocence than to travel in the opposite direction. I applaud him for bringing Buddhism to the mainstream media, and for never claiming to know more about it than he does. I am delighted that, in Bhutan at least, he let his crew bring back images of sanctity and strength that need no explanation.

Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha. Photo by Angelo Novi/Courtesy Miramax Films.
Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Photo by Angelo Novi/Courtesy Miramax Films.

Yet I cannot help but think of all the ways Little Buddha might have been used to transmit a real sense of Buddhism to the West. Instead of three half-intersecting plots, we would have been better off with two; instead of casting non-actors, presumably so they would not efface their roles, we could have had actors so good that they elevated their roles. And if only we had known something about Jesse’s own life, or the struggles within his family, we could have seen how Bhutan might have healed them, and how the ceremony and purity of Buddhism might have redeemed the confusion of a contemporary American life. Most of all, we could have been given a sense of what Buddhism means to us today.

When I came out from my second viewing of Little Buddha, in fact, I was left with a melancholy sense that even as Spielberg seems to be turning into Bertolucci (making elegant, psychologically unexpected and politically subtle films about the course of history—at least in Schindler’s List), Bertolucci is turning into Spielberg (making films with gee-whiz special effects about kids in suburbia finding friends in the sky). If one wants to see an engaging fairy tale set in an Indian context, one can more profitably turn to Satyajit Ray’s Adventures of Goopy and Bagha. If one wants to see a sincere crew go off on a genuine voyage of spiritual discovery and self-knowledge, transforming themselves en route, one can follow the charged, high intensity of Peter Brook’s Mahabharata or Meetings with Remarkable Men. And a single image from one of Kurosawa’s later films teaches us more about Buddhism, I would contend, than all of Little Buddha. Like Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth, another film shot in Asia at the same time by one of the few directors sharp and knowing and sensitive enough to be true to Buddhism, Little Buddha seems, finally, to have been made in a trance, by one hypnotized into a sense of how different Buddhism is from our world. Somehow, along the golden road to devotion, watchfulness and kindness have been lost.

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