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Unmistaken Child

Unmistaken Child

Not rated, 102 min. Directed by Nati Baratz.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., July 31, 2009

How do you find the reincarnation of a single person in a world of six billion people? That's the conundrum at the crux of this lushly photographed but emotionally unengaging documentary from Israeli director Baratz, making his feature-length debut. In a Nepalese monastery, the contemplative, shy monk Tenzin Zopa is charged by His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, with tracking down and returning with the reincarnation of Zopa's beloved 84-year-old master, the Geshe Lama Konchog, who has recently died. Zopa, racked with grief and unsure of his ability to locate this newborn yet old soul within the allotted four-year span dictated by tradition, haltingly embarks on the quest via helicopter, horse, and treacherous mountainside footpath. He is aided in his search by revelatory visions, dreams, omens, and portents (and, frequently, the villagers he encounters) until one day he finds in a nondescript Nepalese hamlet a chubby little tyke who may (or may not) be the reincarnation of his late master. Then comes the difficult part: proving to the Dalai Lama and the world at large that this hand-picked cherub, who spends much of his three-year-old life loudly protesting about having to shave his head and playing with remote-control Tonka trucks, is indeed the right kid. Unmistaken Child is a full-immersion glimpse into the ancient traditions of Buddhist reincarnation and one that no filmmaker has ever before explored with this level of freedom and insight. (Martin Scorsese's pseudo-epic Kundun, a fictional account of the goings-on here notwithstanding.) That said, despite the near-palpable sense of spirituality created by the film's natural dramatic arc and Cyrin Morin's ominous score, Baratz's film lacks the necessary historical context to be a true revelation, especially for Western audiences who may be less familiar with the ancient teachings of the Buddha. Chief among many questions left unresolved is why, other than the fact that they were close friends for many years, does the Dalai Lama insist that Zopa be the one and only monk responsible for finding Konchog Version 2.0? Unmistaken Child never reveals the answer, nor does it adequately explain the rules guiding Zopa's search. Possibly, certain Buddhist precepts are not for Western (or Israeli) eyes and ears, but nagging puzzles like this make Unmistaken Child occasionally feel like a particularly pious version of Lone Wolf and Cub meets Nepalese travelogue. Who knew reincarnation could be such a lovely snooze?
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