Preparing to fly back to Arizona from Kathmandu, I had a few Nepali rupees left, so I spent 600 of them on a DVD copy of Little Buddha—a film I'd seen a few times over the years, but now distinctly on my mind after visiting Buddha's birthplace and later spending an afternoon in charming Bhaktapur, which served magnificently as a location set in Bernardo Bertoulucci's 1993 movie. Although Little Buddha certainly isn't a strong movie, it serves as the best mainstream introduction to Buddhism via film.
Simple Buddhist concepts about impermanence and suffering are best illustrated in the vignettes that go back in time to the life of Siddhartha, effectively portrayed by Keanu Reaves. His limited range is used best in films for spaced out dudes (Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventures) or emotionally flat characters (The Matrix, My Private Idaho), so personifying a Buddha in a meditative state works perfectly for Reaves. Detached states of emptiness easily passes for reaching a state of Nirvana whether Reaves achieves internal enlightenment or not, and the stylized storybook episodes of Buddha's life require only that Reaves hit his marks. These mark the best sequences in the film.
The weaker portions take us to Seattle, where Tibetan monk Lama Norbu (Ruocheng Ying) seeks the reincarnation of his dead teacher, Lama Dorje. A dream leads him to young Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger), who is the initial candidate as Lama Dorje's reincarnation. Known for a mischievous sense of humor, Lama Dorje tests his pupil with two other candidates—tiny jokester Raju (Raju Lal) from Kathmandu and upper class Gita (Greishma Makar Singh) from a rural area. They travel together to a Bhutan monastery, where Lama Norbu consults an oracle and meditates to discover the true reincarnation of the high ranking lama.
Bridget Fonda, the most prominent actor of the production, plays Jesse's mother, but she's not required to do all that much—understandable when the plot is so implausible that you must suspend reality to accept its premise. Few Americans would be open to the idea that their son could be the reincarnation of an important Tibetan lama, unless they were already schooled in Buddhism.
But if we can accept the premise, Fonda appropriately demonstrates initial suspicion when encountering comical Kenpo Tenzin (Sogyal Rinpoche), who explains his curiosity about her son's birthday by citing his astrology teaching sessions at the Seattle Dharma Center. Her later bewilderment and awkwardness are perfectly understandable when a group of monks make a home visit, as is her reaction when husband Dean (Chris Isaak) decides to accompany Jesse to Bhutan. Isaak demonstrates why he should never be cast in any leading role with a performance that makes Reaves stoic Siddhartha appear relatively animated. Bertoulucci must have hired Isaac cheaply, as his lifeless character hardly seems present at any point during the film. None of the modern sequences are very convincing; they only work to set up the only interesting portions of the film—the "flashbacks" composed in warmer reds, yellows, and browns that deliver the Buddhist "Sunday School" lessons.
No one should ever check Little Buddha out for its acting, nor for profound teachings that explore the mystical realms of Tibetan Buddhism. As a basic introduction to Buddhism, however, Bertoulucci's film remains unsurpassed. Anyone traveling to Buddha's native haunts in northern India and Nepal will discover a great deal to savor, as the "flashback" sequences outline Buddha's life and the Nepal locations lend tremendous authenticity. One of my guides had acted as an extra on the film, and this made me realize that Little Buddha had provided a visual introduction to both Buddhism and to the region—and that makes its two hour running time worthwhile.