Director turns in a new direction

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After showing the world Marlon Brando in the nude, what else was left?

But Bernardo Bertolucci, whose radically imagined "Last Tango in Paris" established him as one of the world's great directors back in 1972, has found plenty.

He's shown a leftist cavalcade of Italian politics in "1900," claimed by some to be a classic and by others to be a tapestry of propaganda. He's taken us inside the fall of the Mandarin empire in "The Last Emperor," which watched as China convulsed from one kind of dictatorship to another, turning on the personality of the inadequate little man who was born a god and ended up a serf. He's taken us to the center of the sexual maelstrom that was the marriage of Paul Bowles and Jane Auer, in a version of Bowles' cult novel, "The Sheltering Sky."

And now he's showing us the one true path to spiritual enlightenment.

To put it another way, he's showing us . . . Keanu Reeves as the Buddha?

It's true. In his newest film, "Little Buddha," which opens May 25, Bertolucci changes directions so radically it all but astonishes. A man who has made a living, and considerable art, on the edges, exploring the further realms of politics and sexuality, he now aims right for the most middle of middle paths, the spiritual center. And it is sure to create a sound new to his ears -- not derision, not outrage, not moral opprobrium, all of which are familiar to him.

But laughter.

And "Little Buddha" isn't a comedy. It is genuinely, earnestly, perhaps a touch naively, about Buddhism and the man himself, Siddhartha, the pampered Indian princeling who became the Buddha.

Indeed, the movie-savvy, ironic urban audiences who are his natural audiences will probably find the most to hoot at as Reeves, made up to look more like Diana Ross in the high days of the Supremes than any holy man this side of Jeffrey Hunter in "King of Kings," finds the way to spiritual bliss 2,500 years ago, with the help of big-budget special effects.

Bertolucci, who has matured into an amiable, almost paternal man who belies the radical fury that has underlain most of his work, merely smiles, like the Buddha himself.

"It's all right," he says through an Italian accent in a posh Manhattan hotel room where he's come to publicize the film. "I've seen everything.

I've seen every kind of reaction to my films. At Lincoln Center once, 50 people walked out, each stopping to bang his chair in protest."

He is almost beatific as he prepares for the coming cascade, stolid and pleasant and entirely bemused, dressed like a comfortably prosperous suburbanite on his way to the golf club, in tailored slacks and a long-sleeved sports shirt. No sign of tension, no twitch of regret, no buzz of doubt attends him. You feel if you could only rub his belly, it might calm you down.

And it's not as if this is an inherited project, a contract job. It is totally and completely of Bernardo Bertolucci, who not only directed it but conceived it himself, and who guided writers Rudy Wurlitzer and Mark Peploe through the script.

Has he seen the light?

Well, it's not quite so simplistic, but issues of faith are essential to the process.

"When the Berlin Wall collapsed," recounts Bertolucci, "and with it the dream of socialism -- which I had believed in for all those years -- I felt lost. I had been dreaming of utopia and it wasn't going to happen, at least politically."

So, perhaps unknowingly, Bertolucci went looking for a new faith.

"I'm not a Buddhist," he says, "and I make no claim to having any answers. But I had encountered Buddhism before, and even learned how to meditate, somehow without getting the point. I was interested in exotic feelings. And as I thought

about it, I became seriously interested in the subject."

In 1991, Bertolucci met the faith's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, a meeting he describes as "very important."

"I said to him, 'I want to do a film about the Buddha, but I'm not a Buddhist.' He said, 'That's perfect -- you will have Buddhist detachment.' "

Bertolucci, who made the most famous X-rated film in the world in "Last Tango" (it was censored in Maryland), also says without a trace of irony, "I wanted to make a film children could see. It's not a university account of Buddhism, but a nursery-school-level account, a primer."

Thus Bertolucci was drawn to dramatize the documented phenomenon of the appearance of spiritual perfection -- held to be a form of reincarnation -- in children of non-Buddhist culture or upbringing. His story centers on the belief by a sect of Tibetan monks that a young American boy who lives in Seattle may in fact be the reincarnation of a spiritual master recently deceased. They travel to America, approach the boy's parents (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda) who are surprisingly sympathetic, and invite the boy (Alex Wiesendanger) to visit them in their home monastery in Bhutan. The boy, along with his father, makes the trip. Meanwhile two other candidates for the master's soul are identified: an Indian girl and a Bhutanese boy.

In one respect, it's a great adventure, taking us into the realm of the forbidden, to those ornate, mysterious holy shrines of the East, where it not only shows us what we've never seen but also creates the monastic, hyper-intellectual and faith-driven culture of such place. It makes meditation as a way of life seem rational.

But also, "I wanted to see in our days the resonance of the thoughts of the man 2,500 years ago," says Bertolucci earnestly. "How can I have a present and a past? Then I discovered that in the U.S. there had been seven or eight cases of the discovery of children believed by the monks to carry the souls of spiritual masters. I wanted to show the contrast between ancient India and modern America."

So Bertolucci uses the boy's introduction to Buddhism as a way to explain the faith itself. The story proper is a platform to get into a series of re-creations of the spiritual passage of Siddhartha into the Buddha.

Keanu Reeves, who must have lost 60 pounds and looks as sleek as a wet otter, plays the young man who was born to a life of pleasure and ease 2,500 years ago, but began a quest to find the essence of life. Through much suffering and temptation, he develops what his faith maintains is a true path to spiritual enlightenment more profoundly satisfying than any sensual stimulation.

Bertolucci is aware of the somewhat camp reputation of the religious epic, but has blasted full speed ahead through that prejudice.

"The cinema depends on the reality that surrounds it. So the '50s religious epics had a sense of the '50s to them, more than the past. You see the '50s all the way through 'The Ten Commandments,' for example. I needed a sense of contemporary reality in our film. I heard that Keanu was %o half-Hawaiian and half-Chinese, which made him interesting to me. I hadn't even seen 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.' And when I saw him, I was amazed by the innocence of his face. I thought that was fantastic. And, I admit, I made the decision to do a popular movie. There is a desire for wide popularity that I share."

A lot of "Little Buddha" seems a quest for the director's own salvation.

"From the Dalai Lama, I learned one key word: compassion. My generation, we never hung around with that word. Our words were 'revolution' or 'transgression.' But to a Buddhist, compassion is the application of intelligence to kindness: I thought that was fascinating."

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