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Seven Years in Tibet

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Seven Years in Tibet

Starring: Brad Pitt, David Thewlis
Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 131 Minutes
Release Date: October 1997
Genres: Action, Drama


*Also starring: B.D. Wong, Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuck



Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Edward Johnson-Ott read the review ---
3.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie review
4.  Marty Mapes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review
5.  Walter Frith read the review ---

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

They say that travel broadens the mind, but sometimes you wonder. If you go on those if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be- Belgium tours, the only thing you'll broaden is your waistline. Perhaps we should distinguish between travel and tourism. The tourist visits places for status, for a pleasant change of scenery, and for picking up souvenirs, rugs, and clothing that he could get more cheaply at home. The traveler's motives, by contrast, would include a genuine interest in a culture other than his own and perhaps even the hope of a revelation that will change his life. When Heinrich Harrer trained and trekked from his native Austria to the remote Himalayas in 1939, his aim was to conquer the famed Nanga Parbat peak. His motive was only partly the physical joy of the expedition. As a self-absorbed Austrian who happened to be a member of the Nazi party, he had a nationalistic agenda: he wanted to succeed where others failed. Little did he know that he would wind up in the capital of Tibet, one of the few foreigners ever allowed to visit the palace of the holy leader, the Dalai Lama. More important, his visit would change the man radically from a narcissist who ran out on his very pregnant wife because he had no interest in being saddled with a child, to a humble human being who would return to his home and make his peace with wife and son. Harrer wrote his memoirs about the seven years he spent in Tibet. The movie is a biographical drama loosely based on his story. Filming principally in the Argentine Andes which stand in for the glorious Himalayan peaks, director Jean- Jacques Annaud--who was at the helm for such films as "Quest for Fire," "The Name of the Rose" and "The Lover"-- traces Harrer's journey in painstaking detail. Annaud is better at capturing Harrer's conflicts with nature and tussles with his enemies than he is at seizing the inner struggle which converts this hedonist into a mensch, but "Seven Years In Tibet" is captivating material that should delight lovers of adventure stories and National Geographic-style travelogues, devotees of psychological drama, and of course, fans of Hollywood's #1 matinee idol, Brad Pitt. The story opens in Austria just after its Anschluss with Germany as Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) boards a train, arguing with his pregnant wife (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), who opposes the four-month Himalayan trek he is about to make. Led by mountain climbing guide Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis), his group seeks to scale Nanga Parbat, where a wounded Harrer saves the life of his guide. The group are arrested and made prisoners of war by British troops in India, as World War II had broken out. After several failed attempts to escape Harrer--who repeatedly insists on "going it alone"-- makes good his breakout in Aufschnaiter's group where the two traverse the Indian border to the kingdom of Tibet. Through cinematographer Robert Fraisse's lens, the Tibetan capital of Lhasa is made to look like Shangri-La. Though suspicious of "foreign devils," the peaceloving inhabitants accept Harrer, who becomes a teacher to the religious leader, the Dalai Lama (played at age 14 by Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk, a Bhutanese). His Holiness and Harrer become fast friends. The Austrian teaches him about the West and is in turn enchanted by the rituals of this Eastern society. Becky Johnston's screenplay takes every opportunity to cram in details of this exotic culture, describing the protocol for meeting the Dalai Lama; the regard the people have even for the lowly worm which, they say, could have been someone's mother in another life; the fierce desire for independence which leads this peaceloving people to take up arms against Chinese invaders. In fact the film seems so eager to educate its audience about the charm of the people and the beauty of the landscape that Pitt's inner journey often fades from our notice. Movies are, after all, a visual form which can do a lot better dazzling us with flashy settings, some brief but tautly edited battle scenes, and colorful costumes, than with illustrating the journey within. Perhaps we should not blame director Annaud from highlighting external points. But the emphasis does not do justice to its central figure who--we must be convinced--is undergoing a profound metamorphosis into a caring and humble fellow. That said, Annaud does coax excellent performances especially from Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk as the nervy and terminally curious Dalai Lama, from David Thewlis as the companionable and often humorous Peter Aufschnaiter, and from dozens of Buddhist monks who were transported to Argentina for the filming. Fans of Brad Pitt will enjoy seeing him looking every bit the Aryan with shimmering blond hair, and by contrast as the disheveled traveler, so hungry that he rushes to steal some food from two spoiled Lhasa Apsos. The $70 million budget shows, as technical effects are A-1. Some scholars have expressed disappointment that Harrer is treated as a hero since he was a member of the Nazi party, but the movie, doubtless reproducing the wishes of the man in his own biography, downplays this component. When Harrer is given a Nazi flag while boarding his train for India, he simply grabs it indifferently and tucks it into the bottom of his backpack. When he is arrested, he tells the British captors that he has nothing to do with the war; he is just a climber. When told that Germany has surrendered, Harrer seems pleased as this means he can return to his home. During the final credits we are given the poignant reminder that one million Tibetans died at the hands of the Chinese conquerors, who destroyed 6,000 monasteries as well.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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