FILM / And Buddha makes three: Little Buddha: Sheila Johnston on the conclusion of Bernardo Bertolucci's 'oriental trilogy', Little Buddha, a film that treads the 'Middle Way'

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Those tenacious viewers who remain until the very end of Little Buddha's (PG) closing credits are rewarded with a tiny treat. Earlier in the film there is a glimpse of Buddhist monks painstakingly embroidering a beautiful mandala of coloured sands. As soon as it is completed, they explain, it will be destroyed - a symbol of the transience of human endeavour, but also of its circularity, because the monks will then immediately resume their labours. And that is the film's exquisite final image: a hand gently mussing the perfect mandala.

Little Buddha is (and there's a bold concept) a children's film about death and rebirth. 'What's impermanence?' asks its young protagonist of his mentor, and receives the answer, plain-spoken and implacable: 'In 100 years' time, the people in the world will all be dead.' And that is also the paradox of film: it's the most insubstantial of art forms, shape and colour flickering in a beam of light. But it also has the power to immortalise stories and their players, to preserve them on celluloid and reincarnate them for future generations. The quintessential Buddhist medium]

Bernardo Bertolucci is still widely perceived as the high priest of Freudianism and Marxism, of an intellectual art cinema rooted firmly in his Italian origins. But he has been steadily edging into the international arena. Since teaming up with the producer Jeremy Thomas, he has gone in for expensive, spectacular extravaganzas: The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky. Now he has moved further down the mainstream route with Little Buddha, which he has been calling a children's film, and also, perhaps as a selling point, the final part of his 'oriental trilogy' (although it seems slightly specious to yoke together Morocco, the Himalyas and China into a single geographic entity).

It is composed of two parallel strands. In the first, a posse of Tibetan monks fetch up on the doorstep of the Konrads, an upscale American family living in Seattle. They believe Jesse, the little boy (Alex Wiesendanger), to be the reincarnation of a respected lama. The parents (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda) are sceptical - when one beaming monk makes initial contact with Fonda at the school playground, she nods politely but her eyes keep flickering away; you can see her thinking 'How do I shake off this nutter?' But then they become intrigued. Jesse undergoes basic training at the local Buddhist centre. Then he and Isaak journey to the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to learn more.

The second strand, which unfolds in instalments as Jesse reads it in a child's picture book, tells of the dawn of Buddhism 2,500 years ago: the legend of Prince Siddhartha who, Last Emperor-like, is locked inside the luxurious cloisters of his court. One night he slips away on a spiritual quest for answers to the bitter realities of illness and death. After wrestling with temptations, he discovers Buddhism and the Middle Way: a life of moderation between licentiousness and asceticism.

These flashbacks are lavish, seductive, superbly detailed - the (British) production designer James Acheson has imagined a rich and fabulous world, complete to the last minutiae of earrings and ancient games. The film-makers talk a little about the kitsch of popular Indian art as a style reference, but there's nothing campy about these scenes. Against general expectation, Keanu Reeves is completely credible as Siddhartha. He's not called upon to do much acting in the Method sense, but goes through his paces with an attractive ingenuousness and great physical grace. There's a stillness to him that wipes out all memories of those crazy Bob and Ted tics. And of course he looks splendid.

The framing story isn't as successful. For one thing, it's far less visually opulent. Bertolucci's DoP, the master-cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, has devised a distinctive palette for each of the several different settings, and it's a mini coup de cinema when, about 10 minutes into the film, he cuts brusquely to America for the first time. You start at the harsh, blue, thin light: Seattle as a post-modern wilderness, all bright antiseptic surfaces. The Konrads live in a brand new, empty house with plate-glass windows, a fish tank in the bathroom and all the clothes wrapped in cellophane - it looks anachronistic, very Eighties (odd, this, in a film presumably pitched at New Age America).

A note for techno-buffs: the modern scenes were shot on 35mm, the ancient ones on 65mm. You can see it in their richer colours and superior definition, and each time it's with a tiny shudder of disappointment that we tumble back from the sumptuous images of Siddhartha's court into the cold, airless spaces of today. The legend is more real than reality.

But Little Buddha hasn't found a way of marrying antiquity to the present. In one scene, Siddhartha is meditating when a cobra slithers towards him through the grass and rears up, arcing over the prince to shield him from a downpour with its massive head. Cut to Jesse in bed, listening to this story, with some sort of mobile dangling over him. It's a clever visual rhyme that's unable to suggest a deeper analogy. At one point the two worlds collide - Jesse and two other children crouch spellbound in the undergrowth as the prince ascends to Nirvana. But the magic of the Siddhartha story is its uncertain status between history and fable - the mystery is dispelled by catapulting the children into its midst, as though on a particularly thrilling Disneyland ride. It's a Spielberg moment of the naffest kind.

There is one strong link between the plotlines. Each concerns a son imprisoned in a glittering palace, rebelling against his father's over-protective authority, needing to find his own way in the world (you can see here, too, a clear Oedipal echo of Bertolucci's earlier work). The weakness is in the thin characterisation. You don't mind it in Siddhartha: simple is fine for mythic archetypes - simple can conceal profound, or least we may imagine it to do so - but is less satisfactory in contemporary figures.

Jesse isn't much more than a cute tow-head; it's hard to see in him the legacy of a great seer. And, while his father is supposedly propelled towards Buddhism by a spiritual crisis (a close friend dies), his visit to Bhutan has no detectable impact. When, at the end of the film, he mutters 'it's been a kinda emotional time for all of us,' it's the sort of banal line that raises unintentional laughter.

The film is even uneasier about Fonda's character. Women get short shrift in the Siddhartha storyline (the prince's mother dies while he is an infant; he leaves his own wife the day she delivers their son). But the modern plot knows it can't just dump Fonda on the sidelines, even though she doesn't get to go to Bhutan ('you're taking the adventure away from me,' she complains to Isaak). By the end she's heavily pregnant. Partly this is a Buddhist thing: as one person (a lama) dies, another is about to be born, and may even be his reincarnation. Partly, and more crudely, it looks like a feeble sop to contemporary sensibilities: OK, so she loses her son to the monks, but don't worry - there'll soon be another baby along to replace him.

So did Bertolucci sell out? I'd say not: this is an audacious project and one which, for all its flaws, has much to commend it. It is refreshing to find a heavy-hitting European auteur telling his story with such directness, and delightful to see a serious, artistically exacting film for children, even if you suspect it will soar over that audience. It's just at times you feel he's taken on too much and it flashes through your mind that, if not trod carefully, the Middle Way looks uncomfortably like compromise.

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