Film Review: Little Buddha

by Celeste Heiter, Oct 25, 2009 | Destinations: China / Bhutan / Tibet
Little Buddha

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

In this film adaptation of a true story, a Tibetan Buddhist lama's search for the reincarnation of his former teacher leads him to Seattle, and then back to Bhutan for the verification process of three children, one of whom he believes could be "The One". Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, who also directed The Last Emperor, the film stars Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak in the roles of a modern-day American couple, and Keanu Reeves in a story-within-a-story about the life of Siddhartha. The cast also includes several real-life Tibetan lamas. Little Buddha was filmed on location in both Bhutan and Nepal, and features a soundtrack composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto.

The story begins with a narrator reading from a book titled Little Buddha, a colorful children's tale. As the film toggles back and forth between the present-day story of the search for the reincarnated lama and the ancient tale of Buddha, the narration continues as the illustrations from the pages of the book come to life.

In the present-day story, Bridget Fonda plays Lisa Conrad, the wife of a successful architect Dean Conrad. One day, while picking up their son Jesse from school, Lisa makes the acquaintance of Kenpo Tenzin, a Tibetan monk who followed a vision from a dream to the city of Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his deceased former teacher Lama Dorge. Lisa and Dean Conrad are more than a little surprised and skeptical when Kenpo Tenzin and fellow monk Lama Norbu show up at their home to announce that they believe Jesse is the reincarnation of Lama Dorge.

In an effort to keep an open mind, the Conrads reluctantly agree to allow Jesse to visit the Seattle Buddhist Center for testing. And when Lama Norbu suggests that Jesse travel to Bhutan to verify his reincarnation, Dean, whose architectural firm is in the throes of bankruptcy, sees it as his own path to salvation and agrees to accompany his son to the Paro Monastery for the official test of authenticity.

In the ancient setting,Prince Siddhartha was born into the idyllic lap of luxury as the son of King Suddhodhana, who sheltered  him from all knowledge of human suffering, until he ventures out from the palace walls one day and discovers it for himself. Thereafter, Siddhartha devoted his existence to transcending his earthly body into the realm of nirvana. And as the film comes to its conclusion, both Jesse Conrad and Prince Siddhartha must pass the ultimate test.

As a film with virtually no dramatic conflict, both storylines are linear and even-handed, focusing instead on the inherently philosophical themes. Nevertheless, Little Buddha lacks the passion and profundity one might expect from a film of its scope. However, it is charming in places and has a measure of geographical and historical value, both ancient and modern, and is therefore well worth watching.