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Shopping for Buddhas

Bertolucci returns from the East with a handful of nothing

Bernardo Bertolucci's career has been a crashing disappointment for so long that I've sworn off getting excited by the presence of his above-the-title name. For cinematic purposes, the early 1970s filmmaker who made The Conformist and Last Tango in Paris no longer exists.

Instead of those supercharged, deeply imagined works, "Bernardo Bertolucci Presents" now offers exercises in empty Orientalism. If The Last Emperor or The Sheltering Sky were to your taste, you might call them meditations and cross your fingers, but it says here that The Last Emperor was an essay on a man whose life grew ever less significant and compelling and that The Sheltering Sky was beautifully photographed but emptier than its desert vistas. The latter film convinced me that Bertolucci the European no longer exists, that he has been bought out by an international conglomerate. Back in 1973, when movies mattered more than they do now, Pauline Kael wrote that Last Tango's audience, "confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form."

Instead, the ones who appeared to go into shock were Bertolucci and Brando, both of whom immediately went dry. The two men apparently looked into some abyss, or rather into the naked power of film, its potentially terrifying literalness, and decided that once was enough.

Bertolucci now says he quit working in Europe (his last film there was 1981's The Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man) because of "the rampant commercialism" he found in Italy and in the West in general. His turn toward the East may have been very important for him personally -- maybe he should hang up his light meter and become a monk -- but artistically it has been a dead end, albeit a well compensated one. Bertolucci may still be tripping over the Oscars he won for Last Emperor, but he doesn't have anything to say about the East.

All of this said, however, I felt the beginnings of interest during the early moments of Bertolucci's latest, Little Buddha. Based loosely on a true story, the film follows a group of Tibetan Buddhist priests from their exile in the kingdom of Bhutan to Seattle, where, in the person of blond, blue-eyed nine-year-old Jesse Konrad (Alex Wiesendanger), they believe they have found the new incarnation of an important lama. (The movie avoids Nirvana jokes, so I guess I will too.)

The priests' attempt to woo Jesse away from his practical and efficient American parents, played by Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda, could have made for wonderful comedy. But Bertolucci is now so toothless that he doesn't risk offending anyone. He talks about fearing the criticism European directors face when depicting the American family, so he made the Konrads blandly agreeable to the Tibetans' mind-boggling request to take Jesse back with them to Bhutan for karmic testing. He has already kowtowed to the mainland Chinese government in the making of Last Emperor -- he wanted to film the Andre Malraux novel Man's Hope in China, but when told that script was forbidden city, he switched to a more palatable plan -- and he continues that kowtowing here. Bertolucci refers to the "occupation" of Tibet, but very pointedly declines to name China as the occupying power.

Once Jesse is in the Tibetans' care, the film cuts away to a primer on the life of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves, no less. These scenes are nicely filmed and are of educational value. And they might even have worked as narrative, if the opposing contemporary storyline had had a spine.

But again, Bertolucci is careful not to offend. Rather than stick with his little blond lama, he includes other candidates for lama-hood; a boy and a girl, both Asian, one from Nepal, the other from India. And in an ultimate attempt to make everybody happy, the film has it that all three children are the reincarnated lama, so that the monks don't have to choose among them.

In the hands of, say, the reinvigorated Steven Spielberg, this could have been a terrific film. The elements of wonder, mystery, history and innocence are all there. But Bernardo Bertolucci has flat-out given up the fight.

 
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