Little Buddha is a visually stunning but dramatically underwhelming attempt to forge a bridge between the ancient Eastern religion and modern Western life. Bernardo Bertolucci’s second foray into remote Asian territory is considerably less successful than his first, The Last Emperor, as the double narrative [by Bertolucci himself] is awkwardly structured and never comes into sharp focus. The lavish $35 million-plus production is like a long art film for kids.
Modern story sees the aged, august Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng) traveling from the Himalaya kingdom of Bhutan to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his order’s revered late teacher. Path leads to the home of Dean and Lisa Konrad (Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda), whose energetic son, Jesse (Alex Wiesendanger), is the suspected enlightened one.
Jesse is told of the life of Siddhartha (a strikingly darkened Keanu Reeves), a handsome prince who abandoned his charmed existence to live in poverty and search for the true path.
Seeking some answers of his own, Dean agrees to Norbu’s request to bring Jesse to Bhutan, where the boy will be sized up against two other candidates to determine who is truly the reincarnate.
Isaak is wan and unable to communicate the fruits of introspection. Fonda is OK but overly smiley as his fastidious wife, and Wiesendanger doesn’t register much as the son. Reeves makes for a surprisingly watchable and dashing Siddhartha. Ying Ruocheng, who also appeared in The Last Emperor, brings a welcome, light gravity to the principal monk.
[Pic was cut to two hours for its US release.]