Film: The big picture: Buddhism for rank beginners

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Kundun

Martin Scorsese (12)

It has generally been assumed that those viewers who emerge from Martin Scorsese's new film feeling most deflated or aggrieved will be the ones who anticipated something more in keeping with the director's previous work - a "Raging Buddha" perhaps.

This doesn't account for a different strain of disappointment experienced by those viewers who may wish that Scorsese had strayed further from the beaten track than he does in . The picture is simple, which is nice, but it's also simplistic, which isn't. It's like a bluffer's guide to Buddhism: a primer for people who hear the word "nirvana" and think of plaid shirts and loud guitars.

You could hardly accuse Scorsese of exercising undue caution in his choice of projects. The films which have nourished his reputation as the pre- eminent chronicler of the Italian-American criminal classes in fact constitute a minuscule portion of his entire canon; he is more firmly established as an experimental film-maker - a man daring and versatile enough to tackle an urban thriller (Taxi Driver), a large-scale musical (New York, New York) and a concert film (The Last Waltz) in quick succession. Yet is his least adventurous work, more incidental than transcendental. A tale that cries out for abstract interpretation has been manacled to conventions which are as deadening as they are inappropriate.

If you're going to impose a rigid narrative pattern upon a story which is stubbornly resistant to such designs, then you have to be prepared for the consequences. Narrative cinema is a medium of action, which is why violence functions so well within its parameters, whereas Buddhism is a religion predicated on tranquillity, a characteristic that doesn't lend itself to the dynamics of story-telling. Cinema is perfectly well equipped to animate the state of stasis. In La Belle Noiseuse, Jacques Rivette examined the tentative relationship between an artist and his model; the picture was more compelling than most wham-bam action movies, despite the fact that one of the characters spent much of her screen time utterly frozen.

But Rivette wasn't concerned with the demands of narrative. Scorsese is, which places him at an immediate disadvantage. Amorphous events have to be knocked into a palatable shape before they can fulfil their function in a narrative film. The screenwriter Melissa Matheson has tried to imagine a typical dinner-table conversation in the household where the young Dalai Lama (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) is about to be discovered and renamed "", but the effect is stilted; a subtitle announcing "they were just a normal family ..." would not feel out of place. When Buddhist monks arrive and test the boy, the film makes a brief detour into the miracle- child genre.

That the picture finally settles down into being the story of an unwitting messiah bewitched by the world around him may have something to do with the fact that Matheson wrote ET. Her adult Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) finds exotic beauty in trivial details, and he too is disguised by his allies in order to make a dash for freedom, though for practical reasons it isn't on the handlebars of a BMX. The only other difference is that this ET doesn't get to go home at the end.

Scorsese opens the film with the camera spiralling out of the young 's closed eyelids, and progresses on to images of enlightenment, lyrically rendered by the cinematographer Roger Deakins: the boy awakening, a parasol of peacock feathers jewelled with eyes; doors magically opening by themselves to reveal vistas drenched in sunlight. Although these shots promise illumination, it fails to arrive. Scorsese is hard pressed to find a means of converting 's spirit and wisdom into cinematic language, and the shots of him inspecting the world through his telescope don't even come close. has a premonitory dream in which he is knee-deep in (computer-generated) dead monks, but given that by this point China has already made its intentions clear with widespread violence, he's not going to be a threat to Russell Grant any time soon.

The hostility of China destroyed Tibet's tranquillity and drove the Dalai Lama into exile. Bad news for Tibet, good news for the film. Once again, Scorsese's adherence to a narrative structure undermines the picture's intentions: when the threat of invasion materialises, you could find yourself splitting into two parts: human being and cinemagoer. The relief of the latter that the film has finally sharpened its focus may outweigh the indignation of the former. It's the price that Scorsese must pay for shaping his work into a linear narrative: audiences expect climaxes, and respond accordingly.

They expect conflict, too, which comes in the shape of a hilariously effete Chairman Mao (Robert Lin), who gets to wave at in eerie slow motion, with a Bond Villain smile creeping on to his lips. The Dalai Lama may have insisted that the film did not demonise the Chinese, but either he didn't insist firmly enough, or he remains oblivious to the oblique dialect of cinema. Far more chilling than this cartoon Mao is a scene where Buddhists hack up one of their dead, feeding his limbs to a circle of scrawny vultures. It is at this moment that Scorsese chooses to play a radio extract announcing China's control over Tibet, matching sound and image in unnerving synchronicity.

has many problems, but in its conception lies a fatal failure of nerve. If a revered film-maker decides to turn his back on Hollywood by selecting an uncommercial subject, and then choosing his actors from among Tibetan villagers, then how much more of a risk would it be to allow those performers to converse in their native tongue? When you've made a film about Buddhism with a cast of unknowns, there isn't much more that can jeopardise your box-office potential - certainly not a few subtitles.

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