“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 is awkwardly structured and never comes into sharp focus. Opened Dec. 1 in Paris and set to bow in April domestically, the lavish $ 35 million-plus production is like a long art film for kids, which puts it in a tricky commercial position that will test the resources even of Disney-backed Miramax.
In fashioning his least intellectual work, and the one least preoccupied with politics, Freud or sex, Bertolucci has created a picture that is half a picture-book history of the origins of Buddhism and half a consideration of the possibilities of reincarnation in the context of contrasting value systems. Unfortunately, he and his screenwriters have failed to provide a driving dramatic impetus or enough conflict to fuel the story, which is largely populated by underdrawn, dull characters that don’t serve its exalted aims.
Bertolucci once intended to undertake an actual biographical drama of the Buddha, but he opted to channel his interest in the religion into this curiously bifurcated tale of a young American boy who is considered the possible reincarnation of a great lama, intertwined with the life of the Buddha-to-be, Prince Siddhartha, 2,500 years ago.
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 and Bridget Fonda), an upscale couple with a fancy but soulless new house whose energetic son, Jesse (Alex Wiesendanger), is the suspected enlightened one.
Norbu and his fellow monks spend a good deal of time with little Jesse, who, along with the audience, 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. Initially a pageant of stunning palace sets, colorful royal costumes and crowded spectacle, this ancient saga evolves into a small-scale portrait of an ascetic lifestyle punctuated by a magic serpent, genuflecting trees and briefly rampaging special effects.
Bertolucci’s sweeping, choreographic camera style is fine for the first part of this, but operatic cinema is perhaps the opposite of what is needed to convey the simplicity and serenity critical to the second part of Siddhartha’s life.
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.
A touristic visit to Katmandu precedes a long ceremonial climax at the previously unfilmed Paro Dzong monastery in Bhutan. Film fizzles and even cops out during the final half-hour, with a terribly vague resolution that satisfies neither dramatically nor thematically.
Despite the multitude of unsatisfactory elements, “Little Buddha” generally holds the interest due to its unusual subject, exotic settings, filmmaking skill and intrigue as to where it might all be leading. Aside from its pictorial beauties, Vittorio Storaro’s Technovision lensing creates a bold duality between the vibrant, emotional color of the Eastern settings, whether ancient or modern, and the washed out, spiritually drained blues and grays of contempo Seattle.
In all respects, Western people and buildings (in the case of the Konrads’ home and Dean’s unoccupied office building) are presented as empty vessels needing to be filled, an arguable notion that, unfortunately, is not presented with any depth or analytical acuity. The Konrads are given no particular backgrounds and vastly uninteresting personalities; their little life crises smack of artificial inventions to fill out some kind of biographical profile.
It would have taken enormously resourceful actors to bring such thin roles to life, so the casting of musician Isaak as the father proves a further liability. 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 who is propelled on a curious journey, especially compared with some of the terrific child performances seen onscreen earlier this year.
Although his ethnic appropriateness may be questioned by some P.C. police, 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.
However the screenwriting duties split up, Bertolucci never synthesized the work of Rudy Wurlitzer and Mark Peploe into a script that functions meaningfully for both children and adults, which seems to have been the aim.
As expected from any Bertolucci film, production values are tops, notably Storaro’s work and James Acheson’s endlessly inventive production and costume designs.