Other movies had higher budgets or flashier stories, but "Kundun" might be the riskiest and most audacious picture of the past year.
Focusing on a subject steeped in history and religion, filmmaker Martin Scorsese has steered away from Hollywood-type elements that might distract attention from the seriousness of his theme. There are no movie-star faces - most roles are played by Tibetan actors - and the story covers a 22-year span instead of condensing events into an artificially dramatic structure.
Also missing is the psychological emphasis used by most movies to fix attention on the main character's personality. Melissa Mathison's screenplay cares more about sweeping ideas - faith, nonviolence, the intersection of politics and religion - than the personalized drama found in pictures like the recent "Seven Years in Tibet," which explored similar territory in a far more conventional way.
In sum, Scorsese has dared to direct a high-profile art picture that leaves the incendiary images of his "Mean Streets" and "GoodFellas" for a thoughtful look at historical, biographical, even spiritual issues. The result isn't likely to be a high-grade hit in today's star-saturated movie atmosphere. But seen on its own terms, it's an inspiring epic that deserves a wide audience.
The story begins in 1937, when Tibetan monks identify a two-year-old boy as the latest incarnation of the Dalai Lama, the country's spiritual and secular leader.
Noting the irony of his birthplace, near the Chinese border at a time of growing political tension with China, they bring him to Tibet's capital and start the long process of educating him for his future responsibilities. He's an eager pupil, showing keen interest in the modern world outside the boundaries of his highly traditionalized nation.
China invades Tibet in 1950, when the 15-year-old leader considers himself too unseasoned to take charge of an active resistance. In the last scenes he's a young man in his mid-20s, profoundly shaken by China's brutality and faced with awesomely hard decisions. Should he organize a more forceful response to the occupation, compromising his nonviolent principles and risking his life in the process? Or should he flee his country to struggle in exile, preserving his leadership but depriving the people of his comforting presence?
If this riveting material seems less than compelling at times, it's partly because the film's finely detailed authenticity doesn't always support storytelling intimacy. There are also moments when Scorsese appears uncertain how to handle a scene - most of his career has centered on New York, not the Himalayas - and the film's sacred dimension may have intimidated him a bit, as happened in his earlier religious epic, "The Last Temptation of Christ."
This said, "Kundun" is ultimately a stirring tale, filmed by cinematographer Roger Deakins with striking luminosity. Other key contributors are editor Thelma Schoonmaker, one of Scorsese's most gifted collaborators, and Dante Ferretti, who designed the production, shot mainly on Moroccan locations.
Mathison, whose previous screenplays include "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and "The Black Stallion," wrote the movie with assistance from the actual Dalai Lama.
* Rated PG-13. Contains brief but harrowing views of brutality stemming from the Chinese invasion and occupation.