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‘Little Buddha’ (PG)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 27, 1994

Like, be here now: Teen idol Keanu Reeves credibly plays the baby Buddha in Bernardo Bertolucci's botched but beautiful, metaphysical epic "Little Buddha." Bertolucci tries to accomplish so much -- explain basic Buddhist history and spiritual principles, enlighten us about the tragedy of Tibetans in exile, make an entertaining movie that will earn back its $30 million budget -- that casting Reeves as a major religious figure seems just a wry little cosmic joke that pays off. Most excellently.

Seattle architect Chris Isaak comes home one day to find two robed Buddhist monks sitting in his living room. Guided by dreams, the monks traveled from Nepal, in the belief that Isaak's towheaded 9-year-old son (irritatingly perky Alex Wiesendanger) may be the reincarnation of an important Buddhist teacher, or lama. After some misgivings, Isaak's wife Bridget Fonda invites them in. She and Isaak are understandably skeptical, but remarkably open-minded, too -- Isaak eventually even goes with his son to Bhutan to have a look at the monastery and take reincarnation tests.

Luckily for the monks, this kid lives in seen-it-all Seattle and not the Bible Belt.

The head monk, played by kindly, charismatic Ying Ruocheng, gives the boy a storybook about the Buddha, which gives Bertolucci the segue for an opulently detailed series of scenes about the birth of the Buddha.

Pampered, privileged Prince Siddhartha (Reeves) has been sheltered from any knowledge of pain, aging and poverty all his life -- sort of like growing up rich and Republican circa 500 B.C. -- until he inadvertently meets two wizened beggars and awakens to the world of suffering. Reeves decides it is his mission to release all sentient beings from the cycle of pain, first veering toward far-out asceticism before discovering the Middle Way between extremes. When the story returns to the present day, there's even a bit of suspense -- it turns out that there are two other children who show signs of being the reincarnated lama.

Though uneven, the film is engagingly moving and often humorous, as Bertolucci weaves between color-coded sections, cool blue for the western scenes, warm red-gold for those set in the ancient East. The Siddhartha scenes are particularly exquisite, filled with lovely, surprising effects that never try to seem realistic. When a rainstorm threatens the meditating Reeves, a giant hooded cobra appears and serves as his umbrella; when worldly temptations try to seduce Reeves from enlightenment, they appear as rapturously psychedelic hallucinations.

Untouched by cynicism and irony, "Little Buddha" has the wide-eyed, innocent feel of a fable, perhaps because Bertolucci has set out to explicate Buddhism to skeptical Westerners as if to an audience of children.

Bertolucci's audaciously campy casting coup succeeds, and not just because Reeves's presence will lure Sassy readers and curiosity-seekers. He survives the heavy makeup and handles the accent, and his surfer-dude vacuity here makes him appear radiantly serene. Isaak and Fonda, on the other hand, are barely believable as Americans.

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