Martin Scorsese’s Religious Outlier Shines in High Definition.



When the need arises to point out a flaw in the filmography of “America’s greatest living director”, the go-to example has been 1997’s Kundun.  It is and always has been a lazy example, as Kundun is anything but a lazy film or a misfire.  It is in fact one of Scorsese’s most invigorating works, replete with the same spark and verve that powers films birthed within his comfort zone (GoodFellasThe DepartedCasino).  Kundun, with its all-in focus on Tibetan Buddhism, is indeed far removed from Scorsese’s admitted thematic go-tos of urban crime and Catholicism.  But the point is, you’d never know that.

With no previously known actors, a foreign setting, and the central supernatural conceits of an altogether different religion, it’s no wonder that North American audiences have always instinctively kept Kundun at arm’s length.  But to do so is to deprive one’s self of a completely different angle in terms of Scorsese’s career-long grapple with faith in the face of a harsh and brutal world.  

Scorsese says that he went in knowing the challenge he was posing to himself, insomuch as a biopic of the fourteenth and still-current Dalai Lama (portrayed by four different actors at ages two, five, twelve, and as an adult) was decidedly a next-step exploration from his 1988 controversial outlier, The Last Temptation of Christ.  With Kundun, the filmmaker is taking a (another) pronounced risk, that much is undeniable.  What happens when he explores the nature of religion and deeply held spiritual beliefs when Christianity is removed from the equation?

The answer overflows with beauty and mystery.  With a screenplay by the late Melissa Mathison, herself a devoted activist for Tibetan causes and a friend of the Dalai Lama for many years, Kundun is nothing if not earnest at its core. With its gorgeous production design and ornate costumes by several-time Scorsese collaborator Dante Ferretti, the film is an unrelentingly pristine thing.  As photographed by the now-revered Roger Deakins, it is assuredly immaculate, a visually sumptuous experience through this new Blu-ray edition from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.  Yet, Scorsese dodges the biopic pitfalls of stodginess and predictability.  The biggest challenge facing the filmmaker had to be how to render this anti-climactic tale of a fundamentally good man’s decision to self-exile from his country as it falls to communist China as something sacrificially triumphant.  This he does.

Kundun, though, is far from humorless.  Particularly in the film’s first half, which focuses on the Dalai Lama’s youth, lighthearted and downright wondrous moments of this unlikeliest of boyhoods abound.  Just as the human side of Jesus was foregrounded in The Last Temptation of Christ, here Scorsese gives similar attention to the Dalai Lama, albeit to far less controversial results.  Arguably, the humanity of the latter religious figure is a far more obvious and even natural thing to spotlight via cinema alongside his supernatural side (in this case, being the living reincarnation of thirteen other Dalai Lamas) than the Christian former.  

The central conceit of Kundun is that not only are the basic Tibetan Buddhist tenets of enlightenment and karma factually important, but so too are its more abstract concepts such as reincarnation and rebirth.  While Kundun may feel like something of a foreign immersion to newcomers (though the film’s spoken language is English- a conceit to the American money behind it), the film’s consideration of the religion itself is in fact quite surface-level.  One needn’t be Tibetan nor Buddhist nor any combination thereof to appreciate and even enjoy the film.  If Scorsese could respectfully pull off creating this most radiantly meditative of films, then we too can and should absolutely give it a chance.

Film historian and critic Peter Tonguette provides a commentary track worthy of Kundun, methodically weaving observations on Scorsese and his career with contextualization on the film itself.  He gives extended consideration to what he looks upon as the director’s overtly “religious trilogy”, consisting of The Last Temptation of ChristKundun, and Silence.  He describes Scorsese in this key as “passion without histrionics”.  An elevated importance is placed upon these “religious figure” films as well as other perceived Scorsese outliers such as The Age of Innocence in comparison to the popular favorites (Mean StreetTaxi DriverGoodfellas, etc.).  It’s an under-heard viewpoint that’s airing has been a long time coming.

A long time coming also is a Region 1 Blu-ray release of Kundun.  This is a movie that demands high definition.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics corrects this festering need with this absolutely astonishing two-disc set.  Not only does it look exceptional, the remarkable original score by minimalist composer and art-music titan Philip Glass is truly resonant thanks to the format’s uncompressed audio capabilities.  Every now and then Kino Lorber will absolutely unload a volume of bonus features.  This is one of those times; in fact, it’s one of their most bountiful releases to date.  Even some of the extras have extras.  The full list of bonus features is here:

-Interview with Director Martin Scorsese (32: 20) 

-Interview with Composer Philip Glass (43: 38) 

-Interview with Screenwriter Melissa Mathison (36: 40) 

In Search of Kundun with Martin Scorsese (Also available separately on DVD)

– Documentary (85: 00) 

-Interview with In Search of Kundun Director Michael Henry Wilson (53: 36) 

Compassion in Exile – Documentary (62: 00) 

-EPK Extras with Cast and Crew (38: 52) 

-Audio Commentary by Film Historian and Critic Peter Tonguette 

-Booklet Essay by Filmmaker Zadie Constantine 

-Theatrical Trailer

In closing and in reflection, there are four truths, noble in their own ways, about Kundun and its presentation here.  

  1. Just as one needn’t be a practicing Christian to tell a rightly challenging Bible story (a recent example being Aronofsky’s considerably more far-out Noah), Scorsese proves that a non-Buddhist can convey the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama as a better bio-pic than most musician-centric efforts.
  • Though Taxi DriverGoodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street and the like will always be the popular favorites when it comes to Scorsese, they cannot be fully considered in context of the great director without having been versed in his unofficial “religious trilogy”, of which Kundun is the middle entry.
  • Scorsese’s assembly of key department heads on Kundun is one of the most interesting and most impressive in all of cinema.  Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, DP Roger Deakins (their only collaboration, unfortunately), Production Designer Dante Ferretti, Composer Philip Glass (straight outta Koyaanisqatsi), and his faithful editor, Thelma Schoonmaker are a masterful blending of talents, never to occur again.
  • Kundun may not hold a place of honor in Scorsese’s filmography, but Kino Lorber understands that it should.  Hence, their sourcing of all matter of vintage interviews and extra features, including but not limited to the very moving and eye-opening documentary Compassion in Exile.  The amount of care and detail that’s gone into every aspect of this two-disc set is fully warranted, and very much appreciated.

And, in the spirit of this loaded Blu-ray edition, a bonus:

  • When Chairman Mao (Robert Lin) utters the line “Religion… is poison”, it is no less than one of the greatest villainous testimonials in movies.  Chills.


Even now, the Dalai Lama sadly remains in exile from his beloved Tibet, currently under Chinese rule.  Kundun helps us to better empathize both with his personal plight, and that of the country itself.  And it does so with the creative patience and intricacy of a mandala sand painting, but also the keyed-up movement and tenor that its auteur is known for.