It takes a little while to grasp the continuity between Kundun and the previous works of Martin Scorsese. The fourteenth Dalai Lama seems, at first, an odd subject for this most kinetic of American directors. Where is the violence towards self and others, the sexual repression and neurosis, the agony of religious faith and the vulgar humour that have marked such masterworks as Raging Bull (1980) and Casino (1995)?
Kundun may be the most peaceful – and peace-loving – of Scorsese's heroes, but he does share a kinship with his Italo-American predecessors. For he too must face a temptation as Christ did – the temptation of ego. We first see Kundun as a small child. Even before being blessed as the "chosen one" to lead his people, this kid has a monstrous ego. In a series of delightful scenes, Scorsese shows us the child's cheekiness and candour.
As in all Scorsese films, the entry into the world on screen is through the eyes and ears of the hero – and in Kundun, this subjective consciousness expands to include ecstatic visions, premonitions and nightmares. Where, usually, the Scorsese hero plunges wildly into a land of thrills and sensation that leads him astray, the Dalai Lama remains a meditative, cloistered, holy man.
But the dramatic crucible, on one level, remains exactly the same: faced with his own specialness, Kundun must fight with himself to stay "in the world", to maintain his connection with ordinary people and the human community. For most Scorsese heroes, the thought of being just an ordinary guy is a terrifying abomination that leads them to unspeakable excesses.
Kundun may be a figure of immense pathos – the sadness of exile has rarely been so exquisitely rendered on screen – but he is the only Scorsese hero who can reach the point of declaring "I am a man like other man", and live peacefully with that realisation. If this marks a plateau of serenity or maturity in the career of the world's greatest living filmmaker, it comes at no loss to the dynamism, beauty, grandeur and radicality of his art.
Kundun is one of the finest films of the '90s, a masterpiece near the level of The Age of Innocence (1993). Every aspect of the movie, down to the tiniest detail, is perfectly shaped and placed. Scorsese performs wonders with his largely non-professional Tibetan cast: the ensemble of faces, gestures, bodies and voices cannot be faulted. The string of actors playing the Dalai Lama at different ages (including Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong for the longest, adult section) effortlessly absorb our attention.
Some have criticised Scorsese's delicate avoidance of Tibet's intricate political history. On one hand, of course, the film's harsh attitude towards China (and especially Mao) is unambiguous enough to have called forth that country's disapproval – although one wonders why Richard Gere's contemporaneous, blatantly xenophobic Red Corner (1997) recently escaped similar censure.
On the other hand – and for me this is the more important point – Kundun is explicitly a kind of modern fairy tale, beginning with gentle spoken words, ending with a printed screed, and punctuated throughout by sand paintings and graphics that gently nudge this real-life story into the realm of timeless legend. Scorsese does not ignore the political context, but he simplifies and bends it to his chief purpose: to dwell inside the head, the consciousness of the Dalai Lama. The intensity of the result justifies his approach.
Kundun's greatness springs from the tension – unique in cinema history – between a beguiling simplicity of story (scripted by Melissa Mathison of E.T.  fame) and an extreme experimentation at the level of style. Scorsese's work with image and sound has never been freer or more breathtaking.
Although many have complained about Philip Glass's score with its typical World Music appropriations of Eastern motifs, there can be no doubt that Scorsese uses the rich texture and insistent rhythms of this score to maximum effect – especially in the heartbreaking final movement of the film, a slow, unbroken crescendo of emotion and revelation.
Kundun has had some critics reaching for comparisons with the cinema's renowned spiritual masters – artists such as Robert Bresson, Kenji Mizoguchi and Carl Dreyer. The film certainly displays a serene, contemplative, still quality that is unprecedented in Scorsese's career.
Yet, more surprisingly, it mixes this transcendental aura with a heady sense of speed and hallucinatory intoxication – and even a little hard-boiled dialogue in the fine American style. After all, one of the Dalai Lama's finest epiphanies comes when he is able to simply click his fingers and utter the wise words: "Things change".
MORE biopics: Ali, Auto Focus, The Aviator, Basquiat, De-Lovely, Heart Like a Wheel, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, Man on the Moon, Malcolm X, Nixon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Pollock, What's Love Got to Do With It?
© Adrian Martin June 1998