April 13, 2010

Brokaw's Two Faiths, Two Films


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

"Angels & Demons." You may have seen the new Tom Hanks' thriller in which he plays a Harvard University symbologist who unravels a terrible plot to systemically destroy all the potential Vatican successors to a deceased Pope, one by one. It's a panting, workmanlike race-against-time and a cultist Illuminati assassin. We see this killer in action--he's a quick-witted religious fanatic who may also have hidden a quarter gram of explosive antimatter somewhere in Rome, timed to wipe out the entire Vatican at midnight. .You need to believe that Tom Hanks will best this torrent of evil and evildoers and the bodies they're piling up, each horribly branded with the Illuminati's seal burned into his chest.


Hanks' character is smarter, more intuitive and able to knit together the connections between earth, air, fire and water--the elements used to fashion each of the grisly, "Hannibal"-like killings of the four potential successors. And so you never lose faith in Tom's capabilities and decent character. That faith gets tested when the film's religious and moral conscience (Ewan McGregor) turns out to be something else altogether, but Hanks prevails. Good defeats evil--a proper Pope is elected from among the Pretenti. "Angels & Demons" can certainly shake up your perspectives on the hierarchies of the Catholic Church, but then it's a fictional entertainment you watch with a big tub of popcorn in your lap It's kind of an intellectual horror movie. It's not real.


"Unmistaken Child." Nearly all of "Angels & Demons'" covers just a single day's events. But the little documentary that opened June 3rd at Manhattan's Film Forum covers four years, and is a wholly different search for a new Buddhist leader--a reincarnation of a Tibetan master who passed away in 2001. The film begins with his ceremonial outdoor cremation, and the spiraling smoke that drifts distinctly toward a certain mountain range. This is the path that the master's young disciple will follow, as he has been tasked by the Dalai Lama himself to search out a toddler somewhere in Tibet who will unmistakenly embody the wisdom and teachings of the master. Tenzin, the articulate and engaging young apprentice, narrates his own journey, and both he and the child he discovers are very real. Almost too real.


Tenzin travels by foot and mule, and across some torturous snowy peaks by helicopter. Dreams, astrological signs and the advice of villagers (who seem accustomed to this kind of search) direct him toward a certain family and child. The boy is chunky, drools a fair amount, and doesn't seem to be the sharpest pencil in the box. But Tenzin gradually coaxes the family into transporting him back to the Dalai Lama's palace. In the centerpiece scene of this steadily absorbing documentary, a coterie of Buddhist masters confront the four-year-old youngster with a choice of bracelets and other religious objects owned by the deceased master. The real bracelet is mixed in with other equally attractive bracelets. The child is asked to pick which was his in an earlier life. He points to the correct one. He does this again with other mixed objects, and again, and again. The masters look as astonished and pleased as Tenzin, and perhaps you. None of this appears to be staged, and no one looks like they're prompting the boy or fudging responses. And so "Unmistaken Child" makes its leap into a tiny but distinct genre of miracle films (from "The Miracle of Our Lady Of Fatima" in 1952 to Martin Scorsese's 1997 "Kundun" to the provocative "Silent Light" which debuted at the 2007 New York Film Festival), nearly all of which are fictional dramas. But this one sure looks authentic. The production team of Nati Baratz, Ilil Alexander and Arik Bernstein are accomplished Israeli documentarians with solid credits.


Which is the better film? The answer to that depends to some degree on your religious beliefs and faith quotients toward Catholicism and Buddhism (not to mention your leanings toward dramas vs. documentaries). Tom Hanks has created an artistic body of work in his lifetime that richly deserved the recent gala tribute by The Film Society of Lincoln Center. But then there's this new Tibetan kid leader who seems to be demonstrating the transmigration of consciousness and something of the soul, if not an actual self. The filmmaker's notes tell us that in the Buddhist faith, this rarely happens in an immediate next human life--but "rarely" isn't "never." The child closes the film happily surrounded by artifacts of his own life and that of Tenzin's master, and in one breathtaking moment he points to a photo of himself and then points to a photo of the departed master, side by side, and then turns to the camera with a beaming smile, and whispers "me."

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