Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Unmistaken Child

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

What happens when the center of your very existence disappears? Since the age of 7, Tibetan monk Tenzin Zopa has been the companion, servant and student of Geshe Lama Konchong. When his master dies, Tenzin must embark on the most important journey of his life, to seek out Konchong's reincarnated form.

First-time documentary-maker Nati Baratz takes a no-frills, fly-on-the-wall approach to Tenzin's quest, capturing the intriguing rituals and practices of Buddhist culture, while examining faith in a way that is as respectful as it is skeptical. The opening title cards, which inform us of Tenzin's two decades of service and the death of his master, are followed by the statement: "Tenzin feels terribly alone." It's here that Baratz reveals his underlying thesis: Is Tenzin simply following the demands of his religion or, having devoted the majority of his life to one man, desperately seeking to get him back?

From relic masters to astrologers to travels through the gorgeous Nepalese mountains, Unmistaken Child becomes a procedural of sorts, following the charming, humble and genial Tenzin as he strives to find his reborn master. It's a fascinating insider view that uncovers a beautiful and mysterious world of faith and tradition. Unfortunately, Baratz's detached, narrative-driven approach ends up inspiring more questions about Buddhist customs and society than the film answers.

Instead, once the "unmistaken" child has been found, we are treated to the "tests" that will verify his identity, including a shocking moment where the boy picks out Konchong's rosary, prayer bell and drum. Whether it's divinity or the result of subtle coaching by the monks is up to the viewer. No matter which way you see it, it's very clear how important this little boy has become to Tenzin, both religiously and personally.

Where Baratz's doc missteps, however, is in its all-too-brief focus on the boy's parents once he's picked by the monks as the "unmistaken child." It's one thing to celebrate the fact this "reincarnated" lama will devote his life to the gentle salvation of the world, while safeguarding the ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It's another to witness a crying little boy as he's left with strangers, and leave the impact of that decision unexamined. —Jeff Meyers

At the Landmark Maple Art Theatre, 4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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