Film Review: ‘The Last Dalai Lama?’

Twenty-four years after his first film about the 14th Dalai Lama, director Mickey Lemle takes you right up close to the Tibeten holy one’s presence — and wisdom. But will China crush his legacy?

The thing you want from a documentary about his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is the chance to get right up close to him, in the way that movies can do. You want the chance to bask in his presence and come out with a heightened sense of what he’s about. “The Last Dalai Lama?” accomplishes that, and with an offhand eloquence, though it’s a sketchy, catch-as-catch-can movie — an update, of sorts, by the director Mickey Lemle of his previous documentary about the incomparable Buddhist leader, “Compassion in Exile: The Story of the 14th Dalai Lama,” released 24 years ago.

The new film makes extensive use of footage that was shot for that one, back when the Dalai Lama, then in his late 50s, was still relatively youthful and hale. In “The Last Dalai Lama?,” the twinkle in his eye hasn’t aged, and neither has his offhand way of staring at whoever he’s talking to with a concentrated gaze that’s more worldly than beatific. He’s canny, sage, playful, serious; he drinks people in and sizes them up. But the eyes now crinkle, and he is bent over, with a bad knee that makes him walk slowly.

The film goes back to paint in his history, with photographs and film footage from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and it’s a wonder to see these silvery dusty images now, because they have the effect of a true-life fairy tale: the boy who was plucked from the obscurity of poverty, at age two, and declared to be the reincarnation of the previous Dalai Lama, then raised and molded into a kind of Jedi Knight of enlightenment — and who then, in 1950, after the birth of Communist China, when he was a skinny teenager with a bright eager grin, went to have a summit meeting with Chairman Mao.


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