Kundun, a movie written by Melissa Mathison (screenwriter, ex-wife of Harrison Ford and author of E.T.), directed by Martin Scorsese, and scored by Philip Glass, was released in 1997. It tells the story of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, from his "discovery" in a tiny village on the border of China and Tibet in 1937 to his exile in 1959 to Dharamsala, India.

The Dalai Lama is, of course, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, and the title of the movie is one of their names for him, which translates as "The Presence". The movie was shot in Morocco with a largely Tibetan cast, many of whom have never seen Tibet, and who must have felt strange seeing Lhasa's beautiful monastery/palace, the Potala, recreated in Morocco's mountainous terrain.

The movie follows its historical events quite closely, from Kundun's coming of age as a true Buddhist through his trip to Beijing to meet a horrifyingly slimy Mao Zedong and only slightly less sinister Zhou Enlai, to China's subsequent annexation of Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama's eventual flight over the Himalayas. Overall, the film is beautiful, incorporating gorgeous costumes and stunning scenery with exotic ceremonies and appropriately mysterious music. My biggest complaint is that it is rather plodding and reverential. It's not that I imagined that there would be some terrible secret in the Dalai Lama's early life that should be dredged up. It's just that he is a famously joyful person who punctuates his duties and practices with sparkling eyes and a ready smile. When he was assisting in the making of the movie, he apparently burst into laughter when he met the actor who played him as a young man in costume - "Oh, you're trying to be me!" I have heard him confess in an interview with an infectious giggle how naughty he was as a teenager. But little of his abundant joie de vivre found its way into the film, and more's the pity for that. The Dalai Lama has led his people through extreme hardship with wit, charm, humour and faith, but it is only the faith that animates him here. Too bad.