With LITTLE BUDDHA, Bernardo Bertolucci brings his epic style to bear on the life of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, intertwining biography with a fictional tale about a modern-day child believed to be the reincarnation of a revered teacher. Told with simplicity and evident sincerity,
the film seeks gently to introduce mass audiences to the philosophy of Buddhism.
Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng), an aging teacher at a Buddhist monastery in Bhutan, is summoned to Seattle by a fellow monk, Kenpo Tenzin (Sogyal Rinpoche). Kenpo has had a dream suggesting that nine-year-old Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger) is the reincarnation of the monks' late, beloved teacher,
Lama Dorje. A party of monks bring the news to his stunned parents, Lisa (Bridget Fonda) and Dean (Chris Isaak). They give Jesse a book entitled Little Buddha: The Story of Prince Siddhartha.
As Jesse's mother reads the book to him, the film flashes back to Nepal of 2500 years ago. Reared in comfort in a royal court, Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves) wishes to see the outside world and persuades his father to let him travel outside the palace walls. Accompanied by his servant, Channa,
Siddhartha witnesses poverty, disease, old age, and death for the first time.
Back in Seattle, Lama Norbu is explaining the concept of reincarnation to a skeptical Dean when a telegram arrives announcing the discovery in Kathmandu of a second possible reincarnation of Lama Dorje. The monks wish to take Jesse to Bhutan for final testing and invite his parents to accompany
them. Dean balks at this and takes Jesse home.
Siddhartha returns to the palace and demands to know why his father shielded him from the truth. Although the king has posted guards to prevent the prince from leaving, a mist descends on the court, putting everyone to sleep, and Siddhartha and Channa leave on horseback. Siddhartha encounters a
group of ascetics, who have given up all worldly comforts in their quest for enlightenment. He bids good-bye to Channa and enters the forest. As he meditates, a cobra rises up and extends its hood to cover him. Five ascetics witness this miracle and become Siddhartha's first disciples. After
several years as an ascetic, however, Siddhartha decides that "the middle way is the path to enlightenment." He immediately takes a bath and eats whole food, inviting the disgust of his disciples, who desert him.
In Seattle, Dean is shaken up by the suicide of a close friend and rethinks the trip to Bhutan. He agrees to take Jesse, although Lisa's schedule prevents her from joining them. In Kathmandu, the monks are ecstatic when Jesse makes immediate contact with the second candidate, a boy street
performer named Raju. Norbu learns of a third candidate in Bhutan, a girl named Gita whom they set out to visit. In the shade of a monkey tree in the garden of Gita's home, Norbu relates the final chapter of the story of Siddhartha.
As Siddhartha sits silently, Amana, the Lord of Darkness, attempts to distract him from his search for enlightenment with thunderbolts, raging storms, an army of warriors, and a torrent of flaming arrows. Finally, Amana himself appears as Siddhartha's double, only to be turned away by
Siddhartha's insistence that the double is just an illusion. "From this moment on," Norbu relates, "he was known as the Buddha, the awakened one."
At the monastery in Bhutan, Norbu must decide for himself which of the three children is the actual reincarnation. He approaches each in turn, declaring, "Oh, my teacher, I am so happy to have found you again." Asked how all three can be reincarnations, he explains that there can be separate
manifestations of body, mind, and spirit. The next day, at a ceremony honoring the children, the word is passed that Norbu has died. Each child is given a portion of Norbu's ashes. In Seattle, Jesse pours the ashes into Norbu's bowl and sets it in the water to float out to sea. In Kathmandu, Raju
sends his portion aloft by tying it to helium balloons. In Bhutan, Gita climbs her monkey tree and sprinkles her share around its base.
Parting ways with tough-minded Marx and Freud, director Bernardo Bertolucci turns to the tender-hearted Buddha, with unexpectedly charming results. In many ways LITTLE BUDDHA is the most accessible of his films, as well as the first that might find an audience among children. It is also his
first to include significant departures from realism, in the form of fantastic elements and special effects. The scenes of Siddhartha's early years are drawn in epic style, employing hundreds of extras, elaborate costumes, and location shooting in Nepal. Expanded to feature length, they might well
have stood on their own as a stirring historical/mythical drama of the origins of Buddhism. However, by intercutting Siddhartha's story with the present-day sequences, Bertolucci and his scriptwriters have found a way to draw modern viewers into the story. Buddhist beliefs about meditation,
reincarnation, and the concept of "no-mind" are introduced and explained simply and gently, and the fable of the three rival children serves as thematic counterpoint to the historical drama.
As much of a stylistic tour-de-force as any of Bertolucci's past work, the film employs impressive camera movement (under the direction of Bertolucci's regular cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro), spectacular production design, and an intricate editing scheme in which the ancient story, relying
on a series of narrators (Jesse's mother, Lama Norbu, Jesse himself), deftly flows into and out of the modern story. The two tales come together in a thrilling climactic sequence in which the three modern children join Siddhartha in the frame as he faces down the Amana.
Although the search for enlightenment may not have much in the way of high-concept appeal, the film should satisfy adventurous moviegoers as well as the large number of adults already intrigued by eastern religions. Children with open minds will also find much pleasure in the characters of the
children and the kindly old monk.
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG
- Review: With LITTLE BUDDHA, Bernardo Bertolucci brings his epic style to bear on the life of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, intertwining biography with a fictional tale about a modern-day child believed to be the reincarnation of a revered teacher. Told with… (more)