Still from "Kundun" (1997) IMDB

More internal struggle than a traditional narrative and propelled by a hypnotic score by Philip Glass and cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, Martin Sorsese’s 1997 film “Kundun” is an epic about the early years of Tenzin Gyatso, who was identified as the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama at the age of 2 in 1937. Four different actors play Gyatso in the movie, which follows him from that point on until 1959, when he left his homeland during the Tibetan uprising. He’s been living in exile ever since. The Dalai Lama told his story to screenwriter Melissa Mathison during a series of interviews in the ‘90s.


For Scorsese, who came to the film at the insistence of Mathison, faith and spirituality have been strong recurring elements in his work from the beginning, particularly with films like “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Silence.” In an interview with Film Comment, Scorsese explained his fascination with the story: “I read the script and liked its simplicity, the childlike nature of it, that it wasn’t a treatise on Buddhism or a historical epic in the usual sense. … What you really dealt with was the child and the child becoming a young boy and the boy becoming a young man —his spiritual upbringing, and this incredible responsibility which he inherits and how he deals with it on the basis of nonviolence. And the concept of him escaping and taking Tibetan culture and religion with him to the rest of the world.”

Produced by Disney, “Kundun” caused headaches for their relationship with China, who warned them not to release the film. While Disney opted not to kill it, they did bury it, giving it a skimpy limited release on Christmas Day in only two theaters and little promotional energy when it got wider distribution. The following year, Disney CEO Michael Eisner expressed regrets about releasing the film at all: “The bad news is that the film was made; the good news is that nobody watched it. Here I want to apologize, and in the future we should prevent this sort of thing, which insults our friends, from happening.”


Even today, “Kundun” isn’t legally available on any streaming platform and the last home video release is out of print in North America, making tonight’s 7 p.m. screening at Riverdale 10 VIP Cinema all the more special. Get tickets here.

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