Review: ‘Unmistaken Child’ a study of faith
October 27, 2009
“Unmistaken Child,” a documentary by Israeli director Nati Baratz, follows the story of the search for the reincarnation of the Lama Konchog, a revered master of Tibetan Buddhism. Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001 at the age of 84, was seen as perhaps the greatest meditators of his time, and before we get into an argument over what constitutes a “great meditator” (do you factor in speed? accuracy? post-season production?), consider that he meditated in total isolation for 26 years in a mountainside cave. Clearly a first-ballot hall of famer.
After a search of several years – a mystical and fascinatingly unscientific process that takes viewers through some of the most beautiful and remote mountain terrain on the planet – the reincarnated lama is located. He is a 2-year-old peasant boy who happens to have been born at the right time, in the right region, to parents whose description had been foretold for the reincarnation of Lama Konchog. The boy, eventually given the name Tenzin Phuntsok, is slightly remarkable – spunky, strong-willed and, above all, able to pass the tests that prove, more or less, that he is the next generation of the Lama Konchog.
Tenzin Phuntsok might be the central character in “Unmistaken Child,” and Lama Konchog the most revered one – or second, to the Dalai Lama, who makes a brief appearance. But neither is the pivotal figure, or the one through whom we learn the most about Buddhism. That honor falls to an immensely modest man who is called Tenzin Zopa. Tenzin Zopa had, at the age of 7, been selected by Lama Konchog to be the lama’s disciple and servant, a role he filled with extreme dedication for more than two decades.
When his master dies, Tenzin Zopa is given the job of locate the lama’s reincarnated being, and confirm the rebirth. The assignment surprises and bewilders him; he has never had such a consequential thing happen to him – and here he is, trailed by a film crew. More than anything, he is humbled by the task: In the most telling line of the film, one that superbly reveals the ethos of service that is at the heart of Buddhism, Tenzin Zopa says, with thorough sincerity, that locating the reincarnated lama is “a thousand times more important than myself.”
Tenzin Zopa goes on a journey that seems staked more on hope and vague hints than on divine information. Guided by a handful of clues that came from … where, exactly? … he wanders the land and talks to rural farmers, trying to pin down the child who might be the reincarnated master. Along the way, he speaks of his past, the awe he holds for Lama Konchog.
When the reincarnated lama is found, the next step is convincing his parents that he should be taken away, to a monastery in southern India. It’s an emotional moment for the viewer, but oddly easy for the parents, who demonstrate little doubt that their son has a holiness to him. Moreover, and maybe more to the point, they know their son is bound for an exalted existence. As Tenzin Phuntsok is taken up the ladder of Buddhist masters – and eventually to the Dalai Lama, whose final blessing seems to be a mere formality – he does indeed take on an aura of privilege and wisdom. Though maybe any child who has been told how special they are, and treated the same, would turn out that way.
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Though filmed by an outsider, “Unmistaken Child” is an inside job all the way. Director Baratz doesn’t question, critique or even comment. The viewer is treated to a full, candid, you-are-there look into a culture that is as foreign from ours as can be imagined. And what is most foreign to American secular society is how easy it is for Tibetan Buddhists to simply have faith and believe.