Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha is a strange film, hard to get a handle on.
Critics often find their way into talking about a movie through its imperfections – the places where it doesn't seem to realise its intentions, or where it feels like it's going out of control, contradicting itself. Whatever Little Buddha is, I believe it is exactly the film Bertolucci wanted to make.
The unsettling problem for many viewers of the film is more fundamentally one of simple recognition, the shock of a first contact with something completely alien. Just what is this film?
It's not really a genre movie, and neither is it much of an art movie – not even Bertolucci's own previous art movies. It is a style of film very rare in world cinema history: a full-on film of religious meditation and instruction, but essentially a primer designed for children or adults who have never heard of Buddhism. Bertolucci has called himself an amateur Buddhist, and his film often comes over as pop mysticism, Spielberg-style.
Little Buddha is a leisurely film alternating between three large centres of interest. The storyline in the present compares the life of a young, middle class family in Seattle with the journey of a number of Buddhist monks, chasing their dream premonition of a new Buddha born into the world. The Konrad family, with Bridget Fonda and singer Chris Isaak as Mum and Dad, is very materialistic and very American. One's first thought about their airy, spacious home, is that it is an emblem of Western spiritual barrenness, as compared to the light and life of the mystical East.
Bertolucci, in a typically playful twist, transforms this first thought: as usual, he is more interested in how different worlds, different styles, overlap with each other, creating enchanting open systems, cross-cultural hybrids. So while the monks dream of a Buddha in jeans striding down a Seattle street and enjoy their disorientating encounter with whacky Western ways, the Konrad home starts to resemble not a tomb but a temple. Eventually, little Jesse (Alex Wisendanger), who may or may not be the chosen one, will have his own encounter with a crowded and unfamiliar East.
The third line of action is the most forcibly naïve: it is the ancient story of Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves) as told in a picture book for children. Here we see the parallel journey of a man from materialism to delusion, through various punishing experiments in spirituality, finally arriving at the adoption of his true, divine destiny. If it is hard to suppress the thought that Spielberg projected himself like crazy into the hero of his Holocaust epic Schindler's List (1993), it is equally hard to overlook the synchronicity between Siddhartha's career path and Bertolucci's own. It is important to realise that, particularly in Europe, Bertolucci is considered one of those unlucky directors (like Wenders) whose glory days are well behind them, someone who has lost touch with present day realities and audiences. At a key point in Siddhartha's story, he leaves his world of blinding privilege and follows a beggar into the streets, a shock which begins his integration with the world. Bertolucci may be attempting a similar gesture with this film that embraces the virtues of simplicity and ephemerality – even if it takes him many millions of movie dollars to perform that gesture.
But where Schindler's List is torn apart by the monstrous contradiction inherent in such bad faith logic, Bertolucci embraces it, feeds on it. From his first film Before the Revolution (1964), Bertolucci has been the veritable poet of bad faith, social unease and psychic malaise. At first, his intellectual aesthete Marxist heroes – always projections of himself – are ashamed to be part of a revolution, because they are not authentic, not of the people, not working class. Then, as Bertolucci makes his masterpieces The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973), politics gets even more eroded by a savage injection of psychoanalysis (Freud and Reich) as characters fall out of their illusions and confront their base sexuality, their unstoppable death drives and perversions. From fierce illusion to bitter disillusion, several times over: such is the thematic trajectory of Bertolucci's cinema.
Again and again, Bertolucci is drawn to the most archaic problems of the individual psyche, the primal struggle of the child to define himself or herself against the overwhelming figures of Mum and Dad, as in The Spider's Strategem (1970) and La Luna (1979). And continually, especially in the '80s and '90s when he has become the David Lean of European cinema, Bertolucci finds himself compelled, against his better knowledge, to assert conservative wisdoms – to dismiss the entire socialist dream with a poetic flourish in The Last Emperor (1987), to indulge a bit of good old Orientalism in The Sheltering Sky (1990), or to embrace the most patriarchal of religious mythologies in Little Buddha.
Now Bertolucci is caught up in another almighty tangle of faith, manoeuvring between Marx, Freud and Buddha. He is keen to say in all his interviews that to make a film for children, to fashion a cinema of wide-eyed belief and simple, clown-like joy, is the most transgressive cultural act of all. And I would have to admit that the moments of the film which are the corniest, the most transparently contrived, the least artful by the director's usual standards, are also the most affecting in an entirely childlike way. I'm remembering the crazy special effects done at the computer lab: a field of flowers changing colour under the feet of a holy man, or a giant python arching itself above the meditating Siddhartha as if set to kill, but then freezing to provide him with shelter from the elements.
At such moments of the film I certainly felt like a kid again, glued to the television on a Saturday afternoon watching the primitive but uncannily compelling special effects of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) or Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). The experience may not have saved my soul, but it is certainly strange enough to savour.
MORE childlike cinema: A Little Princess
© Adrian Martin August 1994