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MOUNTAIN MAN
THE INCONGRUITY OF A PRETTY BOY IN TIBET

NO WONDER Brad Pitt is making the TV rounds talking to every interviewer who can stay alert. No wonder he's posing for Time magazine covers. (Psst. The story inside is about Buddhism.)

When you title a movie "Seven Years in Tibet," you're making a gift to every critic, joker and amateur wag who isn't ashamed to say that's what it felt like to sit through the movie. In addition, the movie had one other problem. It's based on a memoir by Heinrich Harrer, who is still with us at 85.

A few months ago, after shooting had long been completed, Germany's Stern magazine informed the world that Harrer -- this fellow who learns in the movie how not to be an SOB from Tibet and the Dalai Lama -- wasn't merely a Nazi but a member of the SS. A man can pass off being a Nazi the way teen-agers can pass off some misjudgment or other -- "everybody was doing it at the time." But trying to explain membership in the SS is a good deal harder. It's the difference between consuming the booty from a liquor store robbery by someone you don't know very well and wearing a ski mask, waving a Magnum around and knocking off the joint yourself.

Controversy, goes the stupid cliche, helps box office, though I can't imagine a single soul who isn't a member of the American Nazi Party being curious enough to do a look-see of a movie about the spiritual conversion of a fellow who was, in fact, a member of the SS. (In his defense, it must be said that this was in 1939, when the Holocaust was merely a nascent "racial" policy, but not yet an accomplished fact.)

The story is good in "Seven Years in Tibet," Brad Pitt looks good and is good, David Thewlis is good as his eventual pal, everything about the movie is good. So why, then, does it feel like penance for some sin you don't remember committing?

A most insoluble problem. All the pretty-boy publicity blitzkriegs from here to Regis Philbin won't necessarily solve it, either.

It's a good, if badly misconceived, movie. People who see it will probably leave theaters marginally happier than when they came in. And yet getting them to file in for this act of contrition for the Chinese brutalization of Tibet and the Dalai Lama is what the current Brad-Pitt-a-Thon is all about.

It's the tale of how mountain climber and Olympic gold medalist Heinrich Harrer learned how to stop being a snarling SOB when he sat out the war in Tibet and made the acquaintance of the then-teen-age Dalai Lama, for whom he was both tutor (in Western ways) and pupil (in Buddhist ways of the spirit).

No matter what the movie tells us, or Harrer says, another interpretation of the raw facts could be made: that Harrer -- who had been imprisoned in India after a failed Himalayan expedition -- was shrewd and calculating enough to know what a good thing he had in Tibet while his German countrymen were dying and grievously staining their country's reputation for the rest of the century, and after.

The biggest trouble with Jean-Jacques Annaud's movie is that its first hour spends so much time establishing what a scowling bastard Harrer was in all life circumstances that it's hard to give a fig, even if he eventually turned into Mother Teresa.

Which he doesn't. In the middle, and much the most charming part of "Seven Years in Tibet," Harrer (Pitt, so tanned and sun-bleached that he looks like he could have been a Nazi poster boy) and the teen-age Dalai Lama bond. The young Dalai Lama musses up "yellowhead's" hair, peppers him with questions about the West and earns his loyalty when the Chinese communist government storm-troops its way into Tibet and begins an oppression that is still going on.

So "Seven Years in Tibet" is a narrative sandwich. In the beginning, you get Harrer the unbearable jerk. That's the "Stalag 17" misfire. At the end, you get Harrer, friend and defender of Tibet. That's the "Magnificent Seven" (and "Seven Samurai") misfire. In the middle, you get Harrer, the friend and tutor and father figure of a needy young spiritual leader (played charmingly by Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk). That's the "Last Emperor" part and by far the best.

This movie hereby begins the movie world's entirely unaccountable Lama wars, wherein everyone and his brother Sid seems to be suddenly wringing hands over Tibet and tweaking China. Richard Gere, longtime Buddhist activist, will arrive shortly in "Red Corner," and Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," which has already set off Chinese fireworks, is scheduled to open in New York City at Christmas.

Far be it from me to tell Hollywood grandees how to spend their dough, but . . .

Annaud has a strange history as a filmmaker. He has made some great films ("Black and White in Color," "The Bear"), some good ones based on literature ("The Name of the Rose," "The Lover") and one awful one ("Quest for Fire"). This one is in the good-but-so-what? class.

Actually, the most interesting part of the movie is, by far, the Nazi outing of Harrer after they had finished what's called "principal photography." That's a great subject but one that no movie can ever deal with. It's too "internal" and ideologically complex.

The fact is that our moralizing, rectitudinous intellectual petrifaction on this end of the century is no longer capable of conceiving an aesthetic world in which some important artists (German poet Gottfried Benn, German composer Hans Pfitzner, French writer Celine) were unrepentant Nazis and fascists.

In a recent and remarkable book, Anthony Julius -- the literary critic who was also, somewhat oddly, Princess Diana's divorce lawyer -- demonstrated brilliantly that T.S. Eliot's loathsome anti-Semitism was inseparable from his poetry and, in fact, provided the wellspring of some of it.

These are very tricky matters, obviously.

And boy, are they ever not the stuff of Brad Pitt movies.

MOVIE
Seven Years in Tibet
Rating: ***
Brad Pitt learns humility in Tibet. David Thewlis gets married there. Directed by Jean-Jacues Annaud. Rated PG-13, opening today in area theaters.

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