"Unmistaken Child" does more than take you inside a closed culture in an almost unreachable part of the world. It bears witness to a strange and mysterious process: the search for the childhood reincarnation of a recently deceased and revered Tibetan master. Its privileged glimpse deep into unfamiliar spiritual territory has the strength of revelation.
This journey began for writer-director Nati Baratz in 2002, when he met a monk named Tenzin Zopa at the Kopan Monastery in Nepal and realized that the young man had been delegated by the Dalai Lama to find the reincarnation of the legendary Geshe Lama Konchog, who had died the year before at the age of 84.
Zopa was not chosen for his task by accident. For 21 years, since he was a boy of 7, he had on his own volition been the attendant of Geshe Lama Konchog, familiarly known as Geshe-la, a man revered for spending decades in solitary meditation in an isolated cave.
Though Geshe-la had been his whole life, Zopa feels deeply unworthy of the task of finding the unmistaken reincarnation of his master. He's fearful, he says, of making a mistake because he's not being enlightened enough himself to recognize the child in question.
Sensing a powerful story, filmmaker Baratz set about getting permission to film the process, first from Zopa and then from higher-ups in the hierarchical Tibetan Buddhist world. He finally got the OK, with the caveat that he couldn't tell anyone, not even potential financiers, what he was doing until the process was over.
The camera follows Zopa as he goes from house to house in an area where residences can be miles apart, handing toffees to children and sensing whether they have any potential. His most emotional moment is when he revisits the structure where Geshe-la spent years meditating, which moves the disciple to tears.
Finally, using ancient tests similar to the ones seen in Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," such as the ability to recognize Geshe-la's beads, he finds the child. This discovery, however, is not the film's culmination but just the beginning of its dramatic trajectory.
"Unmistaken Child" is too sophisticated a film to try to convince you one way or another about the validity of reincarnation. But as director Baratz has said, after seeing the child in question, "I think we have to admit that they do know how to choose."
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1:42
A documentary by Nati Baratz. Released by Oscilloscope Pictures.