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‘Little Buddha’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 25, 1994

It's hardly surprising that Bernardo Bertolucci -- a man undaunted by the risky, the intellectual and the spectacular -- would make a film about the Buddha. What is surprising is the beguiling, unpretentious result: "Little Buddha," a modern fable about a Seattle boy believed to be a reincarnated Buddhist teacher, endears the audience to the Tibetan doctrine with a glowing, almost Disneyesque panache.

Photographed gorgeously by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, "Little Buddha" is graced with sweet-natured lamas, stunning sights from the Himalayas and -- in the wackiest bit of casting since George Burns played God -- Keanu Reeves as the Buddha. Few will believe this without seeing for themselves, but Reeves is rather charming in the role.

Bertolucci intermixes high art with childlike wonder, blatant special effects with tacit spirituality. The movie, which also stars Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak, may initially seem superficial and commercially pandering, like something Steven Spielberg would have conceived. But it is remarkably devoid of cloying sentimentality. As someone once said about the films of Max Ophuls, "Little Buddha" is only superficially superficial.

In Seattle, schoolteacher Lisa Konrad (Fonda) is visited at her home by a grinning, befrocked group of lamas. The leader, Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng), who has journeyed all the way from Bhutan, informs Konrad that her 9-year-old son Jesse (Alex Wiesendanger) may be the reincarnated spirit of Lama Dorje, the Tibetan priest's teacher.

Lisa listens to Norbu with indulgent interest, but remains dubious. Her architect husband, Dean (Isaak), is even more skeptical. But little Jesse takes to the idea with chirpy enthusiasm. He becomes a regular fixture at the Tibetans' local center. When Norbu gives him a bedtime picture book about Buddha, the boy is spellbound.

As Jesse learns about the life of Prince Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, the movie flits back 2,500 years to mythical India. In a stirring fusion of past and present, "Little Buddha" relates Buddha's evolution from spoiled prince to serene being and -- in the 20th century -- details Norbu's quest to authenticate Jesse's potential link to Lama Dorje.

It turns out that there are two other candidates (in Asia) for the teacher's reincarnation, requiring Jesse to travel to Bhutan. The child's fate is furthered when Dean -- whose business partner suffers an untimely death -- finds himself suddenly responsive to matters of the afterlife. While Lisa remains reluctantly in Seattle, father and son embark on an unforgettable spiritual journey.

Rather than delve into the elusive depths of Buddhism, scriptwriters Mark Peploe and Rudy Wurlitzer (adapting an original story by Bertolucci) chart a paper-boat voyage over its surface. "Little Buddha" succeeds precisely because of its guileless innocence: It even begins with the words "Once upon a time ..." as Lama Norbu tells a goat fable to his monastic students.

Storaro, possibly the world's greatest cinematographer, bathes the modern and ancient Buddhist scenes (shot in the holy stupa of Bodnath in Katmandu, the ancient palace complexes of Patan and Bhaktapur, among other places) in burnished reds and golds. In America, he all but freezes Seattle in beautiful but icy blues. The divide between East and West couldn't be visually clearer.

Bertolucci, who completes what he has dubbed his "Oriental trilogy" here (with "The Last Emperor" and "The Sheltering Sky"), is hardly subtle about this duality. America's empty, cold materialism is pitted against the warm splendor of Buddhism in a no-contest bout. To this end, Bertolucci has directed Fonda and Isaak to give the most lobotomized performances of their careers. But this bias is a minor shortcoming, especially in light of Bertolucci's multiple embrace -- of the American child who comes of age, the Western father who experiences his own minor revelations, the monks who resolve their compelling mystery and, of course, the great spiritual leader himself.

Copyright The Washington Post

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