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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

"Unmistaken Child" (film review)

"Unmistaken Child" 

Nati Baratz, Writer/Director/Producer
Ilil Alexander, Producer/Co-writer
Arik Bernstein, Producer

If you have the slightest interest in Buddhism, anthropology, or on-the-edge filmmaking, you should not miss this marvelous film.

Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion acknowledges this film's incredible achievement: documenting and participating in the discovery of a deceased Lama's spiritual successor according to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The filmmakers must have begun their years-long journey with the same tenuous uncertainty and dogged commitment as the monk Tenzin Zopa, whose quest for the reincarnation of his spiritual master rests on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither the monk nor the film-makers could have known how the journey would end, and that is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, stunning documentary: it undertakes the same risky journey as its subject, and, like the young monk, is transformed by the process.

The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Just as the monk and those he meets are transformed by their success in choosing the "unmistaken child," the film changes over time. Better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year of the process (new grant money, perhaps?) The Israeli filmmakers seem ever more integrated into the communities they observe, their camera witnessing intimate moments of family life, the testing of the chosen boy, monastic traditions and rituals such as the hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's celebratory return to the monastery.

Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?"

Ebert's questions miss the point laughably. A documentary on Christian priesthood might arouse some astonishment at a faith that practices daily miraculous "transubstantiation" of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of a 2,000-year-old martyr. "Unmistaken Child" does not rationalize, explain, or ask us to accept anything. It allows us to witness an ancient spiritual tradition through the journey of faith of a humble man and to judge for ourselves the fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences, presented with humility and authenticity, we observe a spiritual quest suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, and finally transcendence. What more could one ask of a spiritual experience? What more could one ask of a cinematic experience?

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