"Kundun" is one of Scorsese's finest pictures. It won't be appreciated until well after he's dead, but that's natural when you're dealing with artists of his calibre.
With "Kundun" Scorsese transcends his documentary approach to film and instead relies purely on ethereal imagery and sound. Liquid images, sparse dialogue and a narrative structure (memory and recollections) that justifies it, "Kundun" is the perfect marriage of cinematic form and content.
Scorsese's previous experiment along these lines was "The Age of Innocence". That film was excellent, but its images were formal and based around rituals and rigid order. It was about an uptight society populated by constrained characters.
"Kundun's" camera, in contrast, is free. It's about the ethereal qualities of cinema. Fleeting moments and partial recollections, memories of sound and touch stitched together and framed as a child's waking dream. The film reaches its apotheosis during a 9 minute sequence toward the end where the Lama travels to India by horse. It's the most affecting ten minutes in Scorsese's filmography.
Scorsese has never been a visual storyteller. He uses violence, kinetic edits and explosive actors as a crutch. This is not a criticism, it's just his natural style. But what's great about "Kundun" is that allows us to watch Scorsese step out of his comfort zone.
Ever since his early student films, Scorsese has been obsessed with recreating and repackaging reality as film. His stories were filmed documentaries, his Italian camera tied firmly to his characters (Travis, Jesus, Lamotta etc), the story fleshed out by focusing on the defining moments of the person's life. To drive the story forward, he uses the threat of violence. To end the story altogether, he calls down scenes of carnage. As his style of storytelling is such that he can follow his characters around indefinitely, his tales require some form of external destruction to bring the story to an abrupt close.
Of course "Kundun" again plays to Scorsese's documentary sensibilities. It is a story about the Dalai Lama. A filmed recreation of his life. But in every aspect, "Kundun" transcends the old Scorsese. Instead of method actors desperately pretending to be real (Dinero), we have real human beings who are not trained as actors. Instead of rock-and-roll songs driving the story forward, we have ethereal, ever-present music acting as a tapestry upon which the images are played. And instead of violence propelling the story, we have a hero morally opposed to violence.
Scorsese's film also acts as a meditation on his earlier pictures. While "Taxi Driver", "Goodfellas" and "Casino" portray worlds completely devoid of spiritual values, "Kundun" implores us to meditate on such values. In Travis Bickle's explosions of sociopathic rage and Henry Hill's drug-induced paranoia, we witness the mirror perversions of the Dalai Lama's spiritual transcendence.
"Kundun" is Scorsese taking his particular brand of film-making to it's logical conclusion. Any other attempt to make a "documentary film" after "Kundun" is a wasted effort and is doomed to failure. Look at his latest mess, "The Aviator", a film in which he is caught between being the Old Scorsese and the New Scorsese. This artistic confusion just doesn't work.
It took Scorsese two conscious attempts to become a purely visual storyteller. With "Gangs of New York" he started thinking in terms of cinematic space. If the "Kundun" experiment was about music and images, the Gangs experiment was about cinema as a location. A 3d environment in which the "space" is the "central character".
Interestingly, "Kundun" also features several sequences ripped from Godfrey Reggio's influential documentary, "Koyaanisqatsi". Reggio collaborator Phillip Glass provides the music for "Kundun", and several of the film's audio-visual set pieces (Sand Mandala/Dreams etc) owe a lot to Reggio's work.
"Kundun's" score was also quite novel for Scorsese. It's no coincidence that he chose Philip Glass to compose the film's music. After Scorsese saw Paul Schrader's "Mishima" he noted that "One day I would love to be able to make a film that would cry out for a score by Philip Glass."
In 1980, Glass wrote a famous three-act opera called Satyagraha (meaning passive, non-violent resistance). It was about the period Ghandi spent in South Africa (1893-1914). Each act of his opera took a historical figure as a sort of spiritual guardian (Leo Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Luther King Jr) who represented the past, present and future of non violent resistance.
Just like "Kundun", Glass's opera was about both historical time and politics, and showed it's audience how to be truly civilised in a gratuitously hostile, indifferent world. How to be holy in an unholy world.
10/10 - Critics seemed to hate "Kundun" because they believed it to be too passive. American cinema is largely a cinema of action. A film like "Kundun", where inaction is action, rubbed them the wrong way. But make no mistake, "Kundun" is great cinema. Watch "Taxi Driver" and "Kundun" back to back to appreciate both Old and New Scorsese perfected. Watch "Departed", "Bringing out the Dead" and "Aviator" to see him regress.
Worth multiple viewings.
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