The thing you want from a documentary about his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the chance to get right up close to him, in the way that movies can do. You want the chance to bask in his presence and come out with a heightened sense of what he’s about. “The Last Dalai Lama?” accomplishes that, and with an offhand eloquence, though it’s a sketchy, catch-as-catch-can movie — an update, of sorts, by the director Mickey Lemle of his previous documentary about the incomparable Buddhist leader, “Compassion in Exile: The Story of the 14th Dalai Lama,” released 24 years ago.
The new film makes extensive use of footage that was shot for that one, back when the Dalai Lama, then in his late 50s, was still relatively youthful and hale. In “The Last Dalai Lama?,” the twinkle in his eye hasn’t aged, and neither has his offhand way of staring at whoever he’s talking to with a concentrated gaze that’s more worldly than beatific. He’s canny, sage, playful, serious; he drinks people in and sizes them up. But the eyes now crinkle, and he is bent over, with a bad knee that makes him walk slowly.
“The Last Dalai Lama?” opens in 2015, during a celebration in New York of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday, and as he saunters on stage in his red-and-yellow monk’s robes, with his shaved head and his trademark glasses and purse-lipped smile, it’s a little like watching an event organized to honor the Buddhist Santa Claus. The Dalai Lama would probably be the first to point out that everything about him that’s famous and iconic and legendary and “one-of-a-kind” is stuff that just gets in the way of letting you really see him. He has become a cosmic celebrity, and there isn’t a concept on earth that could be less Buddhist.
The film goes back to paint in his history, with photographs and film footage from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and it’s a wonder to see these silvery dusty images now, because they have the effect of a true-life fairy tale: the boy who was plucked from the obscurity of poverty, at age two, and declared to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, then raised and molded into a kind of Jedi Knight of enlightenment — and who then, in 1950, after the birth of Communist China, when he was a skinny teenager with a bright eager grin, went to have a summit meeting with Chairman Mao.
It’s fascinating now to hear his first impressions of Mao, whom he found, on a personal level, to be “so gentle, so friendly”; in hindsight, it’s a bit like hearing that Ted Bundy always came off as such an all-American nice guy. He initially believed that Mao would let Tibet stand as an independent region, but in 1959 the Tibetan government was crushed, and Tibet itself was coerced into the People’s Republic of China. We hear tales of the Dalai Lama’s escape to India, and of what happened to a number of his associates — including one of his brothers — who were captured and imprisoned by the Chinese.
The brother, interviewed by Lemle, says that his single greatest struggle during that time was to hold onto his compassion — that is, his compassion for his captors. To see their humanity, regardless of their cruelty. That’s the sort of comment where you hear it in a documentary and think, “That’s way beyond me,” but when the Dalai Lama, turning his face to the camera, speaks of “compassion,” the power of it is that he’s not talking about some lordly self-sacrificial higher state of being designed to be scrawled onto a world-peace poster. He’s talking about the fundamental impulse that makes us human. If we lose that, then we’re lost.
In Tibet, the loss of the Dalai Lama’s presence has never ceased being a matter of tragic anguish. Over the years, 144 young monks have immolated themselves to protest his enforced exile (the film includes several brief shots of these horrific and profound events). Yet the Dalai Lama we see is no self-serious holy man. He’s endlessly self-deprecating, with an exuberant laugh, especially when he confesses that he inherited a short temper from his father. You only wish that you could see what that looked like. (My impression is: If he’s admitting it at all, he’s probably understating how bad it gets.) We see a portrait of his holiness painted by none other than George W. Bush, who speaks, with more insight than you’ve ever heard from him, about why he felt compelled to make an alliance with the Dalai Lama — in explicit disavowal of the will of the Chinese leadership — in a way that no previous American president had.
Will there ever be another figure like the Dalai Lama? “The Last Dalai Lama?” reaches beyond its title question mark to suggest that there may not be. The Chinese government has already declared (indeed, has written into law) that it will choose the next Dalai Lama — which, according to the film, could lead to the disturbing possibility of two Dalai Lamas (one true and Tibetan, the other a puppet guru of the Chinese state), or none at all. Whatever does happen when the 14th Dalai Lama is gone, what may prove to be unique about him is that he grew up in Tibet during the pre-modern age, and is encoded with the spirit of a time when the Buddhist heart and mind was as organic as breathing. But in exile, he became a larger-than-life figure whose radiant serenity now melts through a world of noise that may never again allow that radiance to be matched.