Religion, history, and politics play important parts in "Seven Years in Tibet," now opening in theaters after a well-received premire at the international filmfest here.
But the most important factor in getting it "green-lighted" by Hollywood was probably the participation of superstar Brad Pitt, whose handsome face is filmed so glowingly that it almost outshines the magnificent Himalayan mountains that surround him throughout much of the story.
The movie is a star vehicle at heart, aimed more at marketing Pitt's popularity than probing complexities of empire-building and cultural clash that trouble the Tibetan region to this day. Still, the story takes clear stands on moral and ethical issues - such as China's outrageous occupation of its peace-loving neighbor - and may foster new understanding of this ongoing situation.
Pitt plays Heinrich Harrer, a real-life Austrian adventurer famed in the 1930s for his mountain-climbing exploits. (He wrote about his adventures in the 1953 book "Seven Years in Tibet.") Portrayed as a talented but self-involved man, he flees from mounting responsibilities at home and heads for Nanga Parbat, one of the highest Himalayan peaks.
War has erupted in Europe, though, and Harrer is confronted by British soldiers who haul him from the mountainside and whisk him into an internment camp. He escapes with help from fellow prisoners, whom he promptly abandons, preferring to trek toward safety on his own.
A two-year journey brings him to the isolated Tibetan city of Lhasa, center of the country's Buddhist faith. It is also the home of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama - still a boy, tantalized by a little knowledge of Western culture and eager for a teacher who'll expand his horizons.
Harrer becomes his tutor, developing a mutually enlightening friendship with him. The movie culminates with China's invasion, Harrer's return to Europe, and his pupil's escape to India.
This is fascinating material to work with, and director Jean-Jacques Annaud decks out Becky Johnston's screenplay with the sort of outdoorsy vitality he cultivated in "The Bear" and "Quest for Fire." Pitt is commendably earnest as Harrer, ably supported by David Thewlis as his fellow traveler and several gifted Asian performers, including Jamyang Wangchuk as the Dalai Lama, in the Tibetan roles.
Its merits notwithstanding, the impending release of "Seven Years in Tibet" was clouded by news reports that Harrer had been an active Nazi during the '30s, not a politically apathetic figure as the film originally implied. In response, the producers have dubbed in a small amount of extra dialogue that admits his Nazi connection and indicates his subsequent regret about this.
The movie could have benefited from further improvements, such as reducing the story's Eurocentric bias - the Dalai Lama seems infatuated as much with Western cars and movies as with the ancient traditions of his own land - and delving more deeply into spiritual questions. The story acknowledges how wrenching it was for pacifist Buddhists to take up arms against the Chinese, for instance, but fails to tell us why Tibetans didn't confront the invasion through alternative means, such as a Gandhian commitment to nonviolent resistance.
Such shortcomings aside, "Seven Years in Tibet" is one of the season's more substantial large-scale entertainments, using colorful storytelling and Pitt's appealing presence to spotlight an imperialistic event that continues to cry for correction.
* Rated PG-13; contains violence and rough language.
John Williams Scores With 'Tibet'
Composers face special challenges when they provide music for movies set in distant places or long-ago times. If the music sounds too standardized or commonplace, audiences may miss the pleasant sensation of being transported away from their own familiar milieu. But music that's too mysterious or "exotic" can seem confusing, distracting, or both.
Music master John Williams leans toward the first option, making his scores as listener-friendly as the crowd-pleasing movies that are his specialty - numerous hits by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, for instance. His score for "Seven Years in Tibet" breaks little new ground, soothing the ear with easygoing harmonies that recall Maurice Jarre's romantic "Doctor Zhivago" melodies more than enigmatic echoes of the Himalayan slopes.
But lending eclecticism to Williams's score (on the Mandalay label) are two elements not found in the average soundtrack recording. One is a series of cello solos, performed with characteristic expressiveness by superstar Yo-Yo Ma. The other is a pair of excerpts from two compositions - "Mahakala" and "Yamantaka" - written and performed by the Gyuto Monks, whose work crystallizes the Tibetan moods that are central to both the movie and its score.
The net result is a largely conventional yet listenable and sometimes enticingly atmospheric CD that will please moviegoers and stay-at-homes alike.