Bertolucci, Buddha and Bill's Best Bud
On paper "Little Buddha" looks like a movie where there should be a lot to talk about from interesting casting choices such as Keanu Reeves and Chris Isaak through to the fact this is a Bernardo Bertolucci movie. Yet I find myself feeling like there is a lot less to say than I anticipated and that in itself isn't a bad thing especially as things I thought I would definitely have a lot to say left me with little.
Now there are two sides to "Little Buddha" we have a story in the now and a story in the past. The story in the now focuses on Lama Norbu leaving Bhutan to head to Seattle in search of his teacher's reincarnation leading him to a young boy called Jesse. Norbu's journey also takes him to Kathmandu to a street urchin called Raju and then an Indian girl called Gita as all three children show signs of being reincarnations and it is his job to discover who is his teacher's reincarnation. I will be honest this search for his teacher's reincarnation is not the strongest of stories although entertaining because it eventually features three children. But more importantly this story in the present is really a feed in to the story of the past.
As to that story of the past well it is all about Siddharta who would go on to be known as Buddha and it tells his story from his mother the Queen giving birth through to his spiritual enlightenment. Now I knew nothing of this story prior to watching "Little Buddha" and was surprised by how much I actually learned and that is down to the fact the story is told both simplistically and visually. Maybe for those who already know the story of Siddharta the simplicity may be a stumbling block but as an introduction to Buddha it does a surprisingly good job.
What is also surprising is some of the casting starting with Chris Isaak as Jesse's father because it is a perfectly restrained performance, maybe the actual character is a little wrong but Isaak's performance isn't. But the big shock is Keanu Reeves as Siddharta as let's be honest would you cast the actor who played Ted "Theodore" Logan in the "Bill & Ted" movies as a spiritual leader. Yet Reeves actually delivers, now in fairness most of the movie he has to either look inquisitive or serene without saying much but he does deliver what he is asked to. In fact all the actors from the young children to the more senior cast members deliver good performances especially Ruocheng Ying who as Lama Norbu is highly watchable.
What is less shocking is that "Little Buddha" is a stylish movie because that is what you expect from a Bernardo Bertolucci movie. It may not have a sense of being epic but then at times in its simplicity, in the beauty of a crowd shot or a moment of silent meditation it is simply beautiful.
What this all boils down to is that "Little Buddha" is not the movie I was expecting to watch but in many ways a better movie because it does a good job of telling the story of Siddharta for those like me who had no knowledge. It's not perfect but the irony is that those things which make you hesitant about watching it such as the casting of Keanu Reeves never end up being the issue you expected.