'The Last Dalai Lama?': Film Review

Courtesy of Lemle Pictures Inc.
A poignant tribute to an extraordinary figure.
8/11/2017

Mickey Lemle’s new film revisits the legacy of the Tibetan spiritual leader 25 years after his original documentary was released.

Perhaps no religious leader has been as consistently visible on the world stage over the past 50 years as the 14th Dalai Lama, the revered Buddhist monk who fled Tibet in 1959 to escape Chairman Mao’s communist regime. In the decades since, he’s patiently advocated for the Tibetan people’s autonomy while at the same time establishing a worldwide reputation for religious collaboration and innovative research into the links between Buddhism and science.

The Dalai Lama’s profile got a boost from filmmaker Mickey Lemle’s 1992 documentary Compassion in Exile, and now Lemle returns 25 years later with this follow-up reexamining the Dalai Lama’s legacy, taking the celebrations surrounding his 80th birthday in 2015 as a departure point. Like its predecessor, the new film will prove of most interest to his holiness’ admirers and devoted followers. But it also offers a good deal of appealing content for broader audiences that may deepen their appreciation for this charismatic leader who has successfully forged widely admired religious and secular roles with a surprising variety of high-profile personalities, including presidents and A-list actors.

Although Martin Scorsese’s little-appreciated 1997 feature refers to him by the Tibetan high-honorific Kundun, the present Dalai Lama was born to peasant parents in eastern Tibet in 1935. After briefly recapping his subsequent identification as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of two, the film segues to China’s 1950 forced annexation of Tibet. After nearly a decade attempting to accommodate Mao’s military representatives in Lhasa, his holiness and his family slipped away in the middle of the night in 1959, crossing overland by foot and horseback to northern India, where refugee Tibetans established an exile government in the Himalayan hill town of Dharamsala.

Cutting back to Lemle’s Compassion in Exile, the new film revisits some of the key interviews from that documentary, when the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to his holiness and his family members. These discussions focus primarily on the sometimes esoteric religious practices of Tibetan Buddhism and the restive political situation inside Tibet, as well as the challenges of resettling Tibetan refugees.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the self-effacing monk in saffron and burgundy robes received the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, and now that his holiness has forsaken his political role among his fellow exiles, contemporary footage focuses more on his secular interests. Maintaining a daunting schedule of public appearances, he keenly pursues his abiding focus on the relationships between Buddhist meditation and brain function, particularly as it applies to human emotions. Perhaps the most surprising interview features George W. Bush speaking fondly about his recollections of hosting the Dalai Lama when he was presented with the 2006 Congressional Gold Medal, becoming the first sitting president to ignore China’s sensitivities and appear at a public ceremony with the Tibetan cleric.

Clearly Lemle remains somewhat awkwardly awestruck with his holiness, and it takes some time for him to circle back to the political issues that dominated the first film and the central question presented here: Will there be a 15th Dalai Lama? Ongoing rivalry over the decades with the leadership of the PRC, which has attempted to co-opt the process of identifying reincarnated Buddhist lamas born in Tibet, has convinced the Chinese that only they can be responsible for validating the 14th Dalai Lama’s successor.

This unprecedented intrusion into religious tradition has prompted the Tibetan exile community and the current incarnation to assert that he may in fact be the last Dalai Lama, concluding the lineage in an effort to forestall China’s interference. Now visibly slowed by aging and discouraged by years of Chinese hostility, his holiness remains philosophical in considering his own demise, acknowledging that he’ll certainly reincarnate, but in what form remains unknown, or undisclosed.

And so the question mark at the end of the title becomes the most salient issue that the film considers, but don’t expect the Dalai Lama to provide a simplistic resolution. Although as warm and compassionate as ever, his quiet wisdom reminds us that there are still some mysteries that most of us remain unprepared to contemplate.

Production company: Lemle Pictures
Distributor: Matson Films
Director-writer-producer: Mickey Lemle
Executive producers: Dal LaMagna, Michael Goodwin
Director of photography: Buddy Squires
Editors: Don Casper, Mickey Lemle
Music: Philip Glass, Tenzin Choegyal

82 minutes

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