Unmistaken Child – Movie Review

A most intimate look at the recognition of a peasant child as a prophet.  A masterpiece of understatement

Tibetan Buddhist master Lama Konchog is said to have meditated 26 years in a mountain cave.  For this and other acts of devotion he was acknowledged the world over as one of the greatest living Tibetan masters.  In 1980 the Lama was joined by his most devoted disciple, Tenzin Zopa, who was at his side at the Lama’s death in 2001.  Tenzin was heartbroken at his master’s death, by far the closest human in his life.  Under the tenants of Buddhism, Lama Konchog would have the decision in death to be reincarnated in any form he desired.  But for the incarnation to be that of a human who would once again lead and inspire the multitudes the person of the incarnation must be identified within four years of the Lama’s death.  The search was on.

Thus the stage is set for first time film maker writer/director Nati Baratz’ fascinating human drama “Unmistaken Child.”  Garnering awards at both the Full Frame and Haifa film festivals this film tells the story of the search for the reincarnated master and chain of events that followed the identification of an infant resident of an isolated village as the reincarnated Lama.

There is no possible way that anyone can doubt the sincerity of this filming effort.  It is almost shocking that any photographer would be allowed to film the sacred and unbelievably obtuse methods by which the probably location and eventually the distinct identity of the infant reincarnated Lama are uncovered and confirmed.  The resulting search and confirmation represent two searches happening at the same time.  The first search is a scientific one, starting with astrological predictions of regions and narrowing down to specific villages.  The second search is the spiritual quest of disciple Tenzin, a man with the tunnel vision of a stockbroker when it comes to identifying his new master.

For western audiences, the conflict is extreme.  Even if one believes in reincarnation he or she will he hard pressed to accept even the possibility of the identification of a speechless infant as a future prince in the world of Buddhism.  On the other hand, how else would one do it?  Such a process may well be beyond the capacity of the western mind to analyze.  Having accepted that the best thing to do is just sit back and watch.

The photography is as relaxing and inspiring as is the peaceful and positive dialog delivered by disciple Tenzin Zopa.  As the search unfolds in the mountains of Tibet the audience is introduced to what may well be the most rugged environment in the world; also possibly the most pure.  In this world of rocks, cold and rarified air it is possible that even mosquitoes would find it hard to survive.  Yet, masters such as the Lama live here for decades in shelters of rocks pondering the peace and the poetry of the ageless vaporous horizons and the singularity of the sparse and unpredictable bloomings.  The gray matte of the sky and desiccated meadows throws any notion of worldly pleasure back into the face of the indulgent.

As the search continues and the field of decision is narrowed, the wealth devoted to the singular child becomes more pronounced.  Treks first taken on foot are replaced with trips in helicopters; testimony to the increasing chances of the child being the one.  The viewer is alerted that this is, indeed, important stuff.  Even the Lamas know how to bring technology out of the hanger when it is required.

After a dozen visits to the house and countless conferences with family, the heartbreaking question is asked.  Will the family give up the child?  The parents are faced with the worst decision a mother and father could have to make, the decision to lose their infant forever to the church for the betterment of mankind.  The camera stares unflinchingly into the face of the mother as the weight of her decisions settles onto her shoulders.  The moment is an earthquake of emotion transmitted through the subtlest of facial expressions.  We are there.  We are in her mind.

At the conclusion of the film we are part of the New Year’s gathering, a spectacular event and the time of the final acceptance of the infant Lama.  The child, now about 3 years old, has mostly learned the basics of wrapping scarves around followers.  They flock to him in uncountable thousands.  A king is born.

Although the actual process of identification of the Lama remains more or less a mystery to the Westerner, the film is a great look at grass roots Buddhism and a triumph of lush inspirational photography.  The end result is the coronation of a king or emperor, much the same as it has happened for millennia, defying rationality but working as well as any other form of leadership, in the end.

Directed and Written by: Nati Baratz

Featuring Tenzin Zopa

Release: June 3, 2009
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 102 minutes
Country: Israel
Language: English / Tibetan / Hindi / Nepali
Color: Color