Kundun, 1997. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Scorsese's second stab at hagiography is absolutely mesmerizing. Here, Scorsese uses a cast of non-actors to tell the story of the early life of the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet from his discovery on the Chinese border to his flight into India to escape the regime of the Red Chinese. What Scorsese does with this material is astonishing, given the general nature of the films for which he is best known. Scorsese portrays the contrast between the enlightened philosophy of non-violence practiced by the Tibetans with the violence of this century as a striking, horrifying, and profoundly spiritual clash of cultures and as a subdued coming of age drama set in desperate times. Scorsese is still the prodigal child of the cinema and he barrows liberally for this movie from Welles, Powell (especially Black Narcissus), Hitchcock, Bunuel, Busby Berkley even, and a multitude of other sources and welds them into an amalgam that is uniquely his own. This is as good as cinema gets. During its entire two and a half hours of running time, one never feels the urge to look away from the screen for fear of missing some new visual delight or some telling nuance of the story. This is reinforced by Phillip Glass's hypnotic score--Scorsese has always used music well, but here he employs it to its fullest to hold the audience's rapt attention. As in all of Scorsese's movies, it is the incidental details that tell the most: the utterly creepy incarnation of Chairman Mao, the repeated motif of sand painting as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, the shifting POV shots that plunge into spiritual visions throughout the movie, and the film's most flamboyant set piece: the funeral of the Dalai Lama's father, chopped up and fed to vultures as the news of the Chinese invasion is revealed. This is Scorsese's best movie since Goodfellas, and one can scarcely imagine a more different experience. One for the ages.

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