The last time Martin Scorsese left New York on a spiritual mission was back in 1988 when his “The Last Temptation of Christ” drew a flurry of Christian protests and the odd case of a solo Oscar nomination — for the director himself. Now, Scorsese’s out about as far as he’s going to make it — to the roof of the world, the Himalaya Mountains, for “Kundun,” a biographical look at the Dalai Lama family members who have all played integral roles in Tibet’s struggle against the Chinese occupation. The heady PC mix of religion, social and cultural issues and basic human rights coalesce in the film, but not around any star, as they do around Brad Pitt in “Seven Years in Tibet.”
The lack of a star or known actors of any magnitude for an epic of this size and weight doesn’t bode well for Oscar’s favor.
That occasional fifth spot in the directing nominations that doesn’t correspond to a best picture nod could once again be Scorsese’s. The Scorsese mark of quality will have to front any sort of campaign made for the gold by Touchstone Pictures unless a “Gandhi” brand of inspirational performing can create another Ben Kingsley to captivate the academy.
“Kundun” isn’t even akin to such past nominations magnets that had no big-magnitude movie stars at their centers — “A Man for All Seasons,” “A Passage to India” — or this year’s “Amistad.” But these films skirted the problem with high-recognition supporting casts.
One big plus is the pic’s cinematography is by Roger Deakins, who received nominations for “Fargo” (1996) and “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994).
With an epic Scorsese period piece, Deakins has the kind of film of dimension and craft probabilities that would have created big challenges, and one that could also awe those voters who equate breathtaking vistas to good DP work. The music for this Barbara De Fina production and year-end release is by Philip Glass.
Classic Oscar credentials: 8 (Tibet looks great on film)
Cause celebre: 8 (Just ask Richard Gere or Susan Sarandon)
Vanity element: 8 (Scorsese’s back, Disney’s got him)
The David vs. Goliath syndrome: 5 (Lama vs. China)
The feel-good movie of the year factor: 1 (The Chinese government is not amused.)
The unavoidable, inexorable buzz pic: 1
Idiot savants have more fun: 0 (The Dalai is wise, not mentally challenged.)
Timing is everything: 9
OQ total: 40