Culture > Movies

Film: Hollywood gets religion

Movies | But the evangelism in Brad Pitt's Seven Years is for Buddhism

Issue: "Peretti on publishing," Oct. 25, 1997

Blond-haired, blue-eyed Brad Pitt, the ultimate specimen of Aryan perfection, has the part of his life in Seven Years In Tibet, based on a true story. He's Heinrich Harrer, the buff Nazi who befriends the young Dalai Lama as Red Chinese troops storm Tibet.

In 1939, Harrer leaves his Fatherland and a pregnant wife for the Himalayas to scale the Nanga Parbat peak. When he finally succeeds, the British capture him and his companion (David Thewlis) and throw them into a POW camp. The pair escape and sneak off toward Tibet, finding sanctuary in the previously forbidden city of Lhasa. Then the real plot gets underway.

All this setup takes several reels of film and portrays little except Brad Pitt's phony German accent. When he finally meets Tibet's young Buddhocrat, Mr. Pitt is blown off the screen by the debut performance of young Jamyang Wangchuk as the boy king who finds Harrer fascinating and begs him for details about things Occidental.

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At one point, the Lama commissions his Austrian tutor to build him a movie theater. When the crew starts digging, they have to stop because they don't want to hurt the worms in the ground. After all, one of those critters might be somebody's reincarnated mother. So Harrer has workers pick through the dirt to rescue the worms and transplant them. Ancient superstition is played as cute and charming. We're supposed to praise the extent of the culture's pacifism. The sequence simultaneously ennobles and patronizes Tibetan Buddhist culture.

The last third of the movie features Chinese behaving badly. The Tibetans extend every formal courtesy to three visiting generals who return only insults and disrespect. The Chinese invade and the weak nation is quickly conquered. One set of idols is replaced with another as pictures of Chairman Mao go up all over Lhasa. Harrer hangs around to see the Dalai Lama don his trademark black-rimmed glasses and take his throne. Then, having learned a little bit about fatherhood by playing with the Lama, he heads back to Austria to be reunited with the son he never knew.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud and the other filmmakers didn't know the extent of Harrer's Nazism during filming, so the subject is glossed over (the debate over that oversight is more interesting than the film itself). Watching Seven Years of lackluster drama is a Zen experience-a calm, emptying meditation, as cold as the snow on the mountain-caps of the Andes that substitute for the forbidden Himalayas.

The makers of Seven Years obviously want to leave the audience with sympathy for the Tibetan cause, but their movie is executed with little passion or intensity. After all, the Lama is the Mother Teresa of Eastern religion. Even Mr. Pitt's millions of devotees will be bored. His performance is a mere opening act for the Richard Gere and Martin Scorcese epics to come, also about the Dalai Lama. Hollywood is finally getting religion, except it's Buddhism.

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