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Film Review

Unmistaken Child

Tibetan Buddhism has long fascinated the West, with its powerful messages of compassion, concern for all living things, and their concept of reincarnation. Lately the West's interest in Tibet has been heightened by the Chinese government's brutal suppression of Tibetan culture, which has included destruction of many monasteries, and the jailing many monks and nuns, some of whom have died from torture. It is no exaggeration to say that the Chinese are committing cultural genocide, and much of Tibetan religious culture has been forced out of Tibet into Nepal and India, including the Dalai Lama himself and most of the senior religious figures.

An Israeli director, Nati Baratz, has made an amazing documentary of the four year search for the reincarnation of a revered Lama, who died in 2001. The Unmistaken Child follows the Lama's favorite disciple, Tenzin Zopa, who while grieving his master's death, is sent on a mission to find the child who is the reincarnation of his master. Zopa believes himself unequal to the task, but meditates, looks closely at the cremation ashes of the Lama, does a spiritual and geographic map, and consults an important astrologer. Zopa speaks fairly good English, so we listen to his words directly. His beliefs, modesty, willingness to sacrifice, determination, and goodness are all enormously impressive, emphasized by closeup shooting.

The astrologer believes that the reincarnated Lama, now a child of about a year and a half, has been born in the Tsum Valley, Nepal, where Lama Konchog was born. A further sign indicates that the father's name begins with the letter A. So Zopa begins his quest, first by helicopter into the valley, then trekking the length of the valley, asking everyone he meets about boys who might be the appropriate age. His trek, and the people he encounters, could be a fascinating film by itself. There are such intimate looks into rural Tibetan culture, and the mostly very handsome faces, of all ages, are astonishing. Zopa does finally succeed in locating a promising young boy, reports back to the senior monks, who arrange a series of tests for the boy. These tests include placing a series of religious objects on a table, and asking the boy to take the ones that belonged to the Lama. The monks then notify the Dalai Lama.

The cinematography here is never less than gorgeous, whether closeups of faces, religious ceremonies, or spectacular mountain scenery. Scenery that makes our Sierras looks like foothills. High definition digital cameras have changed everything. Much of the Unmistaken Child could probably not have been shot using conventional film. The visual is ravishing, and the film's story well paced and always interesting. The music, composed for this film, is clearly Western, but lovely and often moving. Only 102 minutes long and goes by in a flash. A truly wonderful film, so rich in so many ways. Screening now at the Lumiere, but will probably only play another week or so there. Like so many films with great visuals, definitely worth seeing in the theater.

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