Seven Years in Tibet

sept ans au TibetSeven Years in Tibet is the first of two films this year to deal with the Dalai Lama. The other is Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, due at Christmas; it has no American stars, much less Brad Pitt, so it will be a tough sell. I recommend holding out for Kundun. The current movie adheres to Hollywood’s Rule of Racist Indifference: The mass white audience won’t care about the life of a great man who doesn’t happen to be white, unless he’s the supporting character in a movie about an unimportant white guy. Thus, Seven Years in Tibet gives us the über-blond, blue-eyed Brad Pitt as mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, who is Austrian and also a former Nazi. Harrer, of course, is redeemed through his exposure to the young Dalai Lama — it’s Schindler’s List meets Little Buddha.

The film is certainly handsome. The director, Jean-Jacques Annaud, also made Quest for Fire and The Bear, which relied heavily on nature’s watercolors and had almost no human dialogue. But Annaud’s pictorial style is impressive without being expressive. Any shot from the movie would look ravishing out of context, but there’s nothing under the images — not even any storytelling pizzazz á la Spielberg. The rhythm is smooth and deadening. It’s all “Look at this; look at this; ooh, look at this.” It’s a slide show of Tibet (actually, it’s Argentina and the Andes).

Those who giggled at Pitt’s allegedly Irish lilt in The Devil’s Own (“Ay naid tha’ mooney, Tum”) should know that he has better luck with his Austrian accent as Harrer — though he becomes noticeably less Teutonic once he starts bonding with the Dalai Lama. Cold and selfish, Harrer deserts his pregnant wife to go climb the Nanga Parbat for the greater glory of Germany — and himself. Fully the first half of the film follows Harrer and his expedition leader Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis, much more amiable here than usual) as they are captured by the British and locked up in a POW camp, which they escape by fleeing to Tibet. It’s there that Harrer meets the 14-year-old Dalai Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk).

It’s also there that the movie becomes ripe for parody. After more than an hour of solemn preparation, we get … Brad Pitt showing a kid how to drive a car and work a radio. Wow. When the Dalai Lama isn’t asking eager questions, he’s spouting wisdom like a Buddhist Pez dispenser. Dumbed down for the mass audience, the teachings sound like Yoda, or worse. “If you are worried about something, change it,” he says, “and if you can’t change it, why worry about it?” In other words: Don’t worry, be happy. Whoa, this little dude is heavy, man.

I really hope Kundun does more justice to the subtlety of Buddhist thought. I think it would almost have to. (Though if this movie leads even one Brad-happy teenage girl to the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh or Ayya Khema — or the Dalai Lama, for that matter — it will have done something right.) In Seven Years in Tibet, the Dalai Lama comes off as a benevolent alien — E.T. in Coke-bottle glasses — and Harrer learns to love the son he abandoned. (What is he, a Promise Keeper?) The last act is rushed and murky, sprinting through the Chinese occupation of Tibet — which plays not as a climax but as an afterthought — and winding up, finally, with Harrer and his teenage son planting the Tibetan flag on a mountaintop. One large leap for a white man, one very tiny step for the people of Tibet.

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