By Andrew O’Hehir
Tenzin Zopa in "Unmistaken Child."
No aspect of Tibetan Buddhism is as well-known, or seems quite as mythological to outsiders, as the faith's apparently literalistic belief in reincarnation. Taken as a whole, Buddhism is such a diverse and wide-ranging religion that it very nearly lacks any central doctrines or dogmas. Many Buddhists could be called nontheistic or even atheistic, and the widespread Buddhist belief in reincarnation takes many different forms. To some Zen Buddhists, for example, reincarnation is primarily a metaphor or a folkloric remnant.
But within the Tibetan Buddhist world, as we saw in Martin Scorsese's powerful drama about the young Dalai Lama, "Kundun" -- and as we now see in Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz's remarkable, vérité-style documentary "Unmistaken Child"
-- reincarnation is unmistakably real. That is, belief in reincarnation is unmistakably real. What are we actually seeing in Baratz's film, when we watch a group of middle-aged monks identify a 2-year-old from a Nepalese mountain village as the "unmistaken child," a newly reborn version of Geshe Lama Konchog, a world-famous Tibetan teacher who died in 2001? Like most Western, non-Buddhist viewers, I'm not quite sure, although I definitely incline toward a cultural or psychological explanation.
Over the course of "Unmistaken Child," the reincarnation of Lama Konchog becomes vividly clear to everyone in the story, including the child himself, but most of all to Tenzin Zopa, the impish, emotional, free-spirited monk who is Baratz's central focus. Tenzin Zopa, who looks to be around 30 when the film begins, was Lama Konchog's most intimate disciple from the time he was 7 years old. Left heartbroken by his teacher's death, he is now charged by the Dalai Lama with the responsibility of finding Lama Konchog's reincarnation among the recently born children of Nepal and northern India. (This movie and its subjects do not venture across the border into Chinese-controlled Tibet, or at least if they do they don't tell us about it.)
There have been any number of movies about Tibet and its esoteric Buddhist tradition over the past decade or two, largely connected to worldwide concern over the Chinese government's conduct in Tibet and the worldwide popularity of the Dalai Lama, the country's exiled religious and political leader. "Unmistaken Child" stands above most others in offering us an intimate look at Tibetan Buddhism in action, with no external commentary or narration. Tenzin Zopa, a puckish, lighter-than-air presence who speaks English well, is our only guide through this supernal landscape of rugged mountains and lush valleys, wearing Nikes, a North Face fleece jacket and his saffron monk's robe as he travels from village to village -- sometimes by helicopter -- searching for potential reincarnated lamas in the guise of goop-faced, rotund toddlers.
This approach may lead to more questions than answers, but it's definitely an ingenious way of handling the film's epistemological problems. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism will presumably watch the remarkable scene when Tenzin Zopa's selected child correctly identifies the rosary, prayer bell and hand drum used by Lama Konchog and nod: This is the right kid. Others of us may wonder about the not-so-subtle cues the child is offered during the ceremony, or speculate that he has been coached on which objects to choose. One way of interpreting "Unmistaken Child" is as a deeply ingrained exercise in cultural suggestion, one that a bright, imaginative child can quickly understand and elaborate upon. Be that as it may, the kid believes it as much as the adults do. When the little boy points to a picture of himself next to a picture of the late Lama Konchog and says, "That's me. And that's me. Those are both me," it's an amazing moment.
Now, I'm not so sure the kid in "Unmistaken Child" understands that this revelation or role-playing game or whatever it is will determine the course of the rest of his life. "Being" the reincarnated lama gets him and his parents a lot of attention. It also means that he will be taken from them, have his head shaved, and be raised by monks as a kind of protected prodigy in a secluded Nepalese monastery. His life will be devoted to saving all sentient beings from suffering and transmitting the ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism in a fast-changing world, and I don't dispute the value of those things. What we see at the end of Baratz's beautiful and enigmatic film, however, is a little boy crying because his mother has left him with strangers."Unmistaken Child" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens June 12 in Los Angeles; June 26 in Denver and San Francisco; July 3 in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Washington; July 10 in Phoenix and Portland, Ore.; July 17 in Boston and Seattle; July 24 in Chicago, San Diego, Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas; July 31 in Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis and Sacramento, Calif.; Aug. 7 in Ann Arbor, Mich., Madison, Wis., and Tallahassee, Fla.; Aug. 14 in Kansas City and Santa Fe, N.M., and Aug. 21 in Philadelphia, with other cities to follow.