WHAT DOES a man do whose god has failed him? If he is Bernardo Bertolucci, he finds a new one. Stranded by Marxism, the ideas of which fuelled the works with which he made his name, Bertolucci has turned to religion. Little Buddha (PG) is his hymn to Buddhism: a pageant-like tour through its history and mythology, and a respectful introduction to its contemporary devotees. Whereas the early Bertolucci, like the hero of his second film, Before the Revolution, fought to reconcile idealism with sensuality, dogma with a love of the world, here he is in harmony with himself. Drama is replaced by serenity. The film is certainly good karma - but is it good cinema?
It starts promisingly. In a Bhutan monastery, the burgundy-cloaked Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng) receives the sign he has waited years for: an intimation of the reincarnation of a revered colleague. Cut, startlingly, to Seattle, and a light as different as another planet's: grey and ghostly, a wan backcloth to whirring sirens and honking juggernauts. It's here that the monks believe their lama may have alighted, in the body of a small American boy, Jess (Alex Wiesendanger).
Crouched in the apartment of the boy's parents (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda), two monks explain their mission, their red cloaks becoming black in the cold light. The boy, walking by the window, seems to tower over the city skyscrapers.
We seem set for a classic culture clash: the mystic East versus the materialistic West, and may the best mantra win the boy's soul. But Bertolucci shirks the fight. He isn't really interested in holding Buddhism up to that harsh Seattle light, and the tussle's result is a virtual foregone conclusion. The father has a few qualms, but the death of a friend (a far-too-convenient plot device) convinces him to take his son to Nepal, to let the lamas discover whether his boy is their man. Bertolucci's admiration for Buddhism has drained away all ambiguity and drama, allowing a dreadful passivity to creep over his film- making. Like the hero of The Last Emperor, he's a spectator to history. His famously mobile camera, which once seemed to caress and cajole, now stands respectfully to attention, giving the Nepalese scenes a home- movie blandness.
How much more bite the film would have had if the couple had fought tooth and nail against their child's destiny - if, like the hero of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, they had prayed to God to stay away. Instead, Jesse is smilingly offered up, and taken through a picture-book account of the life of Buddha (Keanu Reeves). Jesse and two other children, also with claims to be the reincarnated lama, are whisked to 500 BC to witness the key moments in Prince Siddhartha's journey to becoming Buddha: his coddled childhood, his belated exposure to death and suffering, his grasping of the principle of moderation.
These scenes are often ravishing. Bertolucci's great cameraman, Vittorio Storaro, seems to have shot them in a wider-aspect ratio than the rest, so that when we go back in time, we're amazed at the detail: it's like a miniature on which every blade of grass is distinguishable. The birth of Siddhartha is beautifully staged behind a rippling wall of silk. And Keanu Reeves, gaunt and tanned, has the right calm and compassion, making a smooth career move from dopehead to godhead. But there are problems with the miraculous side of the story. Film, itself a form of trickery, diminishes magic. We see lotus leaves springing up in Siddhartha's footsteps, but it seems commonplace, the trick photography tackily transparent. The pyrotechnics of Peter Brook's Mahabharata were more enthralling, because theatre made the illusion palpable.
Bertolucci may put criticism of the film down to occidental prejudice: the monks' chant of 'form is empty, emptiness is form' is his credo in this shapeless fable. But he leaves his actors stranded: Chris Isaak, in his first major role, is stiffly unconvincing; Bridget Fonda disappears. Mark Peploe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rudy Wurlitzer, showed himself to be a master of minimalist writing in Antonioni's The Passenger. There he seemed to have drawn a delicate strand from the tapestry of life. Here he's left a plot full of loose ends.
Storaro imposes some order with a final, typically symbolic use of white light (standing for resolution), and an image of a bowl of ashes on the Seattle water, which bobs between kitsch and greatness. But it's too little, too late. Our resistance to Bertolucci's enveloping spectacle may be due to preconceptions about film thriving on conflict rather than harmony - but it's also because his rapture seemscomplacent, unearned. This usually autobiographical director conveys nothing of his own spiritual journey. Without a sense of the travails on the way, even nirvana can seem uninviting.
With its first images, Romeo is Bleeding (18) puts its cards and cliches on the table: a parched desert landscape, a diner, and a slowly revolving fan. This is a designer movie: slick, predictable, and totally unrealistic. Gary Oldman's voice-over maunders through some tired bombast about grabbing hold of your dreams. Reluctantly, we're dragged back to find out what dark scam brought him to this pass. Oldman plays - mechanically - a bent cop caught between a mafioso (Roy Scheider) and a master-criminal seductress (Lena Olin). Off-duty, he is caught between wife (Annabella Sciorra) and floozie (Juliette Lewis). The film has been sold on sex and gore. But Olin vamps it up laughably, with a maniacal Hammer House cackle. And though there are bucketfuls of blood at the end, by then you're too jaded to be shocked.
Deadly Advice (15) is more fun, though not as much fun as it might have been. This British comedy, about matricide in Hay-on-Wye, looks forever set to stir itself into riotous farce, but always relapses into gentle comedy. Jane Horrocks and Imelda Staunton play sisters cowed by an overbearing mother (Brenda Fricker). Horrocks, egged on by Victorian murderers who materialise from musty volumes in the bookshop where she works, puts an axe through the old girl's skull. The killers (top-notch British character actors to a man-slayer: John Mills, Hywel Bennett, Billie Whitelaw) draw her into further slaughter, while arguing over their own exploits. It's a neat image for how the mythology of murder can overshadow the reality. The main reason for watching is Jane Horrocks, who, with the odd withering grimace, or line squeezed to a squeak, suggests that with better scripts she might become a great screen comedian.
Some people may view the hit American comedy Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (12) as the end of civilisation as we know it. It's certainly uncouth, and occasionally offensive. But it's also brimming with energy, moderately inventive, and sometimes even funny. Jim Carrey plays its hero, a Dr Dolittle of detection, who lives in an apartment with more birds than even Hitchcock land-lorded over. Carrey is an acquired taste, but I surprised myself by acquiring it - once his lightning comic repartee began to outweigh his wild mannerisms. You can see why he's become a teen idol, since he uses his body language - with its grotesque, jaw-thrust parodies of politeness - to cackle in the face of convention. The plot involves the theft of the mascot dolphin of the Miami American football team, and NFL fans can enjoy a cameo from star quarterback Dan Marino.
Just room to warn you off Mother's Boys (15), a confused thriller about an obsessive estranged wife and mum (Jamie Lee Curtis). Vanessa Redgrave, in her minute on screen, steals the film. She's welcome to it.
Cinema details: Review, page 74.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies