“The whole world is dreaming.” — Siddhartha
Given Kon Ichikawa’s sensitive, beauteous The Burmese Harp (1956), based on Michio Takeyama’s novel aimed at introducing the tenets of Buddhism to children, there really was no need for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. However, Bertolucci needed to conclude his trilogy which The Last Emperor (1987) brilliantly launched and The Sheltering Sky (1990) adequately continued. From Italy, France, Liechtenstein and the United Kingdom, the third film is mostly weak and unconvincing.
Dean and Lisa Conrad, a Seattle architect and a math teacher, are approached by visiting Tibetan monks who believe that the couple’s ten-year-old child, Jesse, may be the reincarnation of Lama Norbu’s great teacher, Lama Dorje. Through the gift of a storybook, Jesse learns about ancient Prince Siddhartha, his journey to Enlightenment and his evolution into the Buddha. Dean agrees to accompany Jesse to Nepal, where it will be officially decided which of three children, including Jesse, is Lama Dorje’s reincarnation.
Seattle is portrayed as steel gray, overcast, sterile; ancient (what now is) Nepal, effulgent, gorgeous—a sunlit legendary realm. Italy’s critics named Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography the year’s best—and if you’ve seen this film in a theater, you know why. The intensity of light and rich colors aren’t visible in the DVD available in the States.
Keanu Reeves is deeply moving as Siddhartha; in the midst of this (at best) mediocre film, his is one of cinema’s most eloquent performances. Siddhartha’s confrontation with the demon Mara, when Mara challengingly asks, “Will you be my God? The architect of my house?” a spiritual connection is hinted between Siddhartha and Jesse’s architect-father.
The back-and-forths between the U.S. and Nepal are generally clumsy, and all the drama in Seattle, dispiriting. Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda are colorless as Dean and Lisa.
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