Friday, July 10, 2009

Don't miss "Unmistaken Child"

Portlanders, now is your chance (and it may be a short one) to see the miraculous documentary "Unmistaken Child," which I saw and loved after it won several awards at the Full Fram Documentary Film Festival in April. The first feature film of Israeli director Nati Baratz, it tells a profound and complex story, of Buddhist monks searching for a reincarnated master, with delicacy and a remarkably sure hand.

In the Buddhist tradition, when a master, or lama, dies, it is believed that signs may indicate his intention to be reincarnated, and that the "rinpoche," or reincarnated master, may be located by spiritual practices of divination. In this case, Tenzin Zopa, a gentle young man who for 21 years (since childhood) was the closest "heart disciple" of a beloved departed lama, is charged with the task of locating his master, receiving direction from his own dreams, from signs discerned from the ashes of the lama's cremation, and from discernment by Zopa's superiors regarding the region where the rinpoche will be born and the first letter of his father's name.

Zopa, still grieving the loss of his master, feels unworthy of the task, but sets out, as directed, to the valley where he himself was born, visiting along the way the mountainside retreat where he spent beloved years with his dear master. He then goes from house to house in the valley, inquiring after any children between the ages of a year and 18 months. He sits with the little candidates one by one, asking each whether he recognizes the lama's prayer beads, looking for signs that the child harbors the spirit of the revered master. Once he locates a one-year-old who shows signs of being the "unmistaken child" who will now embody the master's teachings and bring enlightenment to the people, Zopa must guide his diminutive master through the various processes for confirming that he is indeed a rinpoche, including an audience with the Dalai Lama, and must prepare the child's parents to release the little master to the care of a monastery far from their mountain home.

It's hard to convey just how profoundly this film works on you--but take my word for it, it is not to be missed. Its rich pleasures involve how simply it conveys the devotion of these believers, particularly Zopa, with his tender attention to the little rinpoche, and its patient observance of the signs of greatness in the toddler. I wondered as I watched what god-likeness should look like in a person so young (a provocative question for a Christ-believer) and marveled at the faithfulness, devotion, and strength of the gentle Zopa, who seems always to be fully present to whatever is happening. With gorgeous cinematography and exquisite grace, this story will inspire you no matter what your religious tradition. (10)

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