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Movie Review: "Unmistaken Child"

August 21, 2009

By Stephen Holden
The New York Times
August 21, 2009

Unmistaken Child documents the four-year search
of Tenzin Zopa, a gentle, baby-faced 28-year-old
Nepalese monk, for the reincarnation of his
Tibetan master, Geshe Lama Konchog, who died in 2001.

The young monk’s journey, on foot, by mule and by
helicopter, begun at the request of the Dalai
Lama, takes him through some of the world’s most
spectacular high country, as he travels from
village to village, seeking a very young child,
age 1 to 1 1/2, who shows signs of being his reincarnated teacher.

The film, written and directed by Nati Baratz, is
a real-life examination of the same rituals and
traditions observed in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun.
Like Scorsese’s movie, it stands in awe of its
subject. The beauty of the landscape and the
monk’s sweetness, humility and good humor evoke a
plane of existence, at once elevated and austere,
that is humbling to contemplate.

That said, Unmistaken Child offers no scholarly
perspective on Tibetan Buddhism and leaves
fundamental questions unanswered. Why, for
instance, is the search for the child so limited in scope and not worldwide?

The direction of the smoke from the pyre at Lama
Konchog’s cremation and the sand patterns below
it offer the first indications of where to
search. A Taiwanese astrologer predicts that the
child’s father’s name probably begins with an A,
and that the most likely birthplace has a name
beginning with the letters TS. Everywhere the
monk goes, he inquires about the existence of
special children who might be the appropriate
age. But the film finally doesn’t convey the time
and labor spent by the monk. And when the child
who may be the reincarnation is located in the
Tsum Valley of Nepal, he is obviously older than
1 1/2 and can speak well enough to be understood.

Once found, he is tested by monks, who ask him to
pick out Lama Konchog’s prayer beads, and his
hand drum from a selection. To their relief, he
chooses correctly. The Dalai Lama gives his
approval, and in the film’s most emotional scene
the boy’s head is shaved as he weeps and protests.

His parents must formally agree to give up their
child, who is taken to Lama Konchog’s mountain
retreat, which has fallen into a state of
disrepair. Later he is dressed in red and golden
robes and a headdress, and transported in royal
style to the monastery, where he will be trained
and where he bids farewell to his parents.

As much as it is about the quest for a miraculous
being, Unmistaken Child is about Zopa’s painful
adjustment to the loss of a master he had served
since the age of 7. His search is a crucial
initiation ritual that restores meaning and
purpose to a life that is suddenly desolate. His
tender, playful interactions with the boy reveal
him as someone of enormous sensitivity, gentleness and spiritual grace.

Unmistaken Child inevitably leads you to consider
the material world and to contemplate the balance
in your own life between physical gratification
and spirituality. The rugged landscape, in which
mist filters through craggy cliffs and
wildflowers seem to dance in the mountain
meadows, suggests that religion and geography are
profoundly intertwined. How we perceive the
universe, time, death and rebirth have everything
to do with altitude and latitude.
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