SIFF Review: Unmistaken Child

SIFFgoers are right to be wary about another film about Tibetan Buddhism, which is the Hello Kitty/noble lost cause for Western spiritual seekers. But though the Dalai Lama does make a late appearance in this Israeli-produced documentary, Unmistaken Child refrains from politics or idealizing the (poorly understood) beliefs of a tiny foreign sect. (That China has been attempting to rig the monks' reincarnation/succession process is all the context we need.) Rather, the film is all about process. It's a detective story, really, where the investigator is young English-speaking monk Tenzin Zopa. He's sent up north in Nepal to seek the reincarnation of his recently deceased master.

Director Nati Baratz obviously spent years documenting the quest; dates, explanatory titles, and maps are usefully supplied along the way. Zopa returns by helicopter to his home valley, where, he explains, he became an apprentice to his late master as a boy. Unsaid is that Zopa relinquished family for monastery. Now, walking the valley in trail shoes and North Face parka, he's literally a stranger with candy--offering treats to little boys, asking if they recognize his master's old prayer beads. As he was once removed from home and kin, so, too, will be another filthy, adorable, snot-nosed, illiterate toddler. During Zopa' interviews, the parents look flattered yet justifiably concerned: Reincarnation would be an honor, one less mouth to feed, and a means to education--yet they'd have to consent to give up their child! It would be creepy if Zopa weren't so likeable, handsome (looking a bit like Tony Leung), and evidently trustworthy. And he grows in wisdom on his assignment. Before, he says of his master, "I never planned for my life. Everything was planned by Geshe Lama." When a young potential nominee is selected, those roles are effectively reversed: Zopa becomes the surrogate father to his future boss. Why he himself shouldn't be allowed to rise in the monastic hierarchy, why this self-fulfilling process of benign brainwashing should endure after so many centuries--those are questions that Baratz clearly raises, but leaves respectfully unanswered. His film is moving yet fundamentally mysterious. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Unmistaken Child Harvard Exit, 7:45 p.m. Sat., June 13 and 11a.m. Sun., June 14.

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