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.

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