"Seven Years in Tibet"
Opened: October 10, 1997 | Rated: PG-13
"Seven Years in Tibet" is not very subtle about stumping for Oscars. It's no coincidence that it brings to mind "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Last Emperor" at times, what with its panoramic photography and its passionate personalization of heavy political overtones.
The film is based on the autobiography of Heinrich Harrer, an admittedly arrogant Austrian mountain climber (and, recently revealed, former Nazi) who learns humility and kindness through a friendship with the young Dalai Lama in the late 1940s.
It has the emotional and psychological scope director Jean-Jacques Annaud ("The Lover," "Quest for Fire") is known for and boasts a powerful lead in Brad Pitt, whose talent runs hot and cold, but is definitely hot here.
Harrer is a self-centered character with few scruples who leaves his young, pregnant wife in the film's first scene to seek glory by scrambling up a foreboding Himalayan mountain. He is distinctly unlikable and Pitt plays him as a conceited Ulysses character, facing a onslaught of hardships that wear down his hubris.
Cooking up an epic flavor, "Seven Years in Tibet" mills emotion during a period when Harrer is imprisoned in India by the British during World War II. His failed escape attempts and the news from his wife that his son now calls another man "father" sets Harrer to throwing himself against barbed wire fences in frustration. This scene is charged with an undefeatable strength and emerging humanity that Pitt lends to his portrayal.
After finally escaping on the fifth try, Harrer escapes into Tibet with little more than the clothes on his back. He and rival climber Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) make it to Lhasa, the Tibetan holy city where they are eventually welcomed into the sheltered, stranger-weary community.
"Tibet" is, to put it nicely, patiently paced. Harrer doesn't even meet the Dalai Lama until 90 minutes into the picture. It is a drama about the gradual changes in Harrer's soul and about the hopeless struggle Tibet faces against an invading communist China, which all but outlaws religion.
But the film makes no apologies for taking it slowly. Because of its purely linear storytelling, "Tibet" has little in the way of build or climax, something sorely needed in a 135 minute movie. However it is never boring (except possibly to teenage girls who go just because Brad is so dreamy) -- especially after Harrer is called on to visit the young Dali Lama, the spiritual leader of the Buddhist faith.
Curious about Western culture and badly in need of a companion who does not constantly bow to him as a holy man in a child's body, the boy and Harrer adopt each other as mutual mentors and friends.
The movie occasionally employs clumsy scripting to afford its characters some reflecting, philosophical dialogue ("Tell me a story, Heinrich," the His Holiness says in one scene). But Pitt and the three talented young actors who play the Dalai Lama at various ages weather these scenes fine, creating a palpable bond between visionary child and assimilating man.
Annaud balances his film well. He stays focused on Harrer while blending in highly symbolic battle scenes between the ill-equipped Tibetans and the invading Chinese, drawing many parallels to Nazi Germany.
"Seven Years in Tibet" is rich in camera, costume and casting (Annaud hired genuine Tibetan monks and the actual Dalai Lama's sister plays his mother), and it spins a fascinating yarn. But the Oscar begging is a little too blatant to succeed. It may swing nominations for costumes and cinematography, but outside of that Annaud will have to settle for success at the box office.