Little Buddha (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1993 (April 7, 2023)
Studio(s)Miramax/Recorded Picture Company/Ciby 2000 (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor's Note: This is a Region-Free Blu-ray import from Australia.]
Little Buddha unfolds two parallel stories—the 2,500-year-old mythical basis of Buddhism and a modern tale built on reincarnation. Director Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) creates a vast, colorful panorama in recounting the legend of Siddhartha, later known as Buddha, and shifts back and forth between the events of his life and the lives of a modern, middle-class American family.
In the first storyline, several Tibetan monks turn up at the Seattle home of the Conrad family. They explain to the parents, Dean and Lisa (Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda), that they believe the Conrads’ nine-year-old son, Jesse (Alex Wisendanger), is the reincarnation of a respected lama. The parents are initially skeptical but eventually become intrigued. Jesse attends training at the local Buddhist center and later, he and his father travel to Bhutan in the Himalayas to find out more about its local culture and traditions.
The second thread, woven in segments through the modern tale, is presented as Jesse and his mother read a children’s picture book given to the boy by the head monk, Lama Norbu (Ruocheng Ying). It tells of the dawn of Buddhism 25 centuries ago and the legend of Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves). Locked inside the luxurious confines of his palace, Siddhartha ventures from his sanctuary and spies a couple of elderly beggars. His curiosity is piqued, for he has never seen such individuals before, and he sets out on a spiritual quest for answers to the troubling realities of illness and death. After dealing with temptations, he discovers the Middle Way—a life of moderation between licentiousness and asceticism.
The scenes set in the past are lavish, with production design and costumes rich in bold color and elaborate jewelry for both men and women sparkling and radiant. In contrast, the modern story is far less visually interesting. These scenes are characterized by a cool bluish hue, almost resembling the silent cinema’s practice of tinting. The Conrads live in a brand new ultra-modern house (the father is an architect) that looks more like a museum than a private residence. With its sleek lines and floor to ceiling windows, it has an antiseptic feel.
The primary connection between the two storylines is that each concerns a young man “imprisoned” in a luxurious “palace” in conflict with his father’s protective authority and needing to find his own way in the world. Unfortunately, the Conrads are poorly developed and seem to be more devices to move the plot along than real people. Fonda’s Lisa is oddly remote as a mother who doesn’t object to a major intrusion on the family. Isaak’s Dean is initially against turning Jesse over to the monks but comes around pretty quickly. Actual parents, I’m sure, would raise quite a fuss if their child were the intense focus of strangers.
Director Bertolucci is ambitious and takes on a lot in Little Buddha—providing Buddhist history and explaining its spiritual principles, referencing the tragedy of Tibetans in exile, telling two stories at once, and creating an entertaining movie. Keanu Reeves might seem an odd choice as Siddhartha since he was best known at the time for his Bill and Ted comedies, but he’s quite good in the role. Young, slender, and handsome, with an exotic look and an air of innocence, he embodies the role of the legendary prince. He doesn’t have much dialogue, but what there is reflects wonderment as his character makes discoveries about the world beyond the gates of his palace. When Siddhartha observes, reflects, and reacts, we can easily read his thoughts.
Little Buddha was shot by director of photography Vittorio Storaro on 35 and 65 mm film with Arriflex cameras, Technovision and Zeiss 765 lenses, and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (2.20:1 for 70 mm presentations). The Blu-ray features a 4K scan of the original negative in an aspect ratio of 2.00:1. Clarity varies, based on the segments. The modern scenes were shot on 35 mm, the ancient ones on 65 mm, providing great detail and vibrant hues. Bold colors dominate, with reds, bright yellows, and oranges dazzling the eye. Details, such as jewelry, patterns in costumes, hair, and make-up are well delineated. Reeves’ face and upper body are darkened with make-up. Special effects include fireballs speeding toward Siddhartha, flaming arrows turning into flower petals, and flowers sprouting where a child steps. The modern scenes are shot with a blue filter, distinguishing them from the ancient sequences but rendering them far less interesting.
There are two soundtracks: English 5.1 DTS-HD Surround and 2.0 LPCM Stereo. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear. The music by Ryuichi Sakamoto nicely enhances the visuals in the ancient scenes. Chanting is heard throughout and there’s even the sound of the long kangling horns used in Tibetan Buddhist rituals to accompany chanting. In the modern scenes, sounds of cars on a highway and typical big city ambient noises are heard.
Bonus materials on the Region-Free Blu-ray from Imprint Films include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Jim Hemphill
- The Making of Little Buddha (15:08)
- Interview with Producer Jeremy Thomas (15:41)
- Interview with Director Bernardo Bertolucci from 1993 (7:08)
- A Great Adventure – Interview with Supervising Art Director Andrew Sanders (16:53)
- Reincarnation of Sound – Interview with Supervising Sound Editor Eddy Joseph (22:11)
- Buddhist Lines – Interview with Dialogue Coach Constantine Gregory (15:33)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:42)
Commentary – Filmmaker/Film Historian Jim Hemphill notes that Little Buddha reunited the artistic team that made The Last Emperor, which had won Best Film and Best Director Oscars. Getting permission to film in Nepal and Bhutan involved the “highest levels of government.” An overview of producer Jeremy Thomas includes mention of his filmography as “a model of excellent taste.” Thomas had wanted to be part of the film industry from an early age and enjoyed working with auteur directors. Little Buddha is atypical for a Bertolucci film because it doesn’t contain confrontational sexual or political content. The director attempts to show that though the West is materially prosperous, it is spiritually empty. The Conrads’ house is expensive but cold. The Eastern world depicted is materially lacking but vibrant and colorful. Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro felt that shooting the ancient scenes in 65 mm was easier because lenses had improved and there was less distortion than with anamorphic 35 mm. The format of 65 mm has been around since the early days of cinema, though it’s thought of as a format developed to compete with television. Little Buddha had 38 digital special effects shots, ranging from 50 to 400 frames. The first words we see in Little Buddha are “Once upon a time.” Bertolucci wanted to make a movie that children could see and understand. The movie had good feedback from children in Italy. The portrayal of Dean and Lisa Conrad is not typical of how American families were shown on screen. A detailed overview of Bernardo Bertolucci’s life and career is interspersed with filmmaking details. He achieved critical success with Last Tango in Paris and was championed by film critic Pauline Kael, whose review established him as a world-class director. However, she was condescending to his subsequent films in later years. Bertolucci looked for an Indian actor to play the key role of Siddhartha but couldn’t find the right one. Though the choice of Keanu Reeves for Siddhartha was controversial, Bertolucci had seen him in My Own Private Idaho and was impressed. He felt the actor’s Chinese/Hawaiian heritage gave him an interesting look, and he projected an innocent quality that was an important part of the young prince’s character. Bertolucci wanted to create a fairy tale prince and Reeves was “breathtakingly beautiful.”
The Making of Little Buddha – The film is referred to as “a story that spans centuries, countries and continents.” Keanu Reeves was chosen to play Siddhartha not for his celebrity status but because he conveyed innocence and had a somewhat Asian look. All key members of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s crew were Oscar winners. Many sets were pre-formed in workshops and later set up on location. The filming schedule was interrupted by local festivals and the monsoon season. A number of special effects were used for the first time, some shot on set, others added in post-production. Little Buddha opens a window to a different world. Clips from the movie are interspersed with “talking head” discussions.
Interview with Jeremy Thomas – There was controversy about the title from local Buddhists. They didn’t like the word “little” associated with Buddha, even though the title refers to the American boy. The various rigors of making a feature film are complicated with location shooting. The project had to be researched to be sure the customs and history were right. The purpose of the movie was to explain the function of Western Buddhism. Though Thomas believes Reeves was convincing, he feels the actor’s fame may have taken something away from the film. The collaboration between Thomas and Bertolucci is discussed.
Interview with Bernardo Bertolucci – Keanu Reeves, in a clip from 1993, notes that Bertolucci was insightful and helpful. Bhutan and Nepal were major locations used in the movie. Bertolucci discusses similarities between Little Buddha and his previous film, The Last Emperor.
A Great Adventure – Supervising Art Director Andrew Sanders says that working with Bertolucci was a different kind of filmmaking. The movie dealt with subject matter unfamiliar to many. The director wanted to create a fairy tale about Siddhartha because his story is very much like the elements of a fairy tale. Sanders had been to Nepal and was interested in its culture. “It was a great privilege” to work on Little Buddha.
Reincarnation of Sound – Supervising Sound Editor Eddy Joseph had recorded wonderful chants but didn’t know how they were actually used in rituals. He believed the chants added a great deal to the film. Though they weren’t placed accurately, they worked in the completed film. The editing process took several more months than it should have. Time was a critical factor.
Buddhist Lines – Dialogue Coach Constantine Gregory worked previously with Bertolucci on The Last Emperor. The actors came from various locations and needed help with their dialogue. He notes that “British monks are very funny.” They don’t take things seriously. Reeves was very committed and had to lose a lot of weight for the role. On the set, he kept to himself, working on his own dialogue. Two boys found by the production were street urchins. The older one spoke phrases in eight languages and was streetwise. He picked up the ways of filmmaking quickly. The young girl seen in the film was Indian. The children were fun to work with. Gregory became friends with many of the monks.
Little Buddha could easily have been two films, and perhaps should have been. The switching back and forth between the birth of Buddhism and modern America often feels clumsy, with connections between the two worlds awkward. Bertolucci took great care with the ancient scenes but failed to develop the modern characters. It’s never clear why the monks have singled Jesse out of all the kids in the world. He’s portrayed as an average child, yet he makes no objection to suddenly being immersed in Buddhist dogma with the consent of his parents. Wouldn’t a nine-year-old be more interested in playing with his friends, going to school, and just being a regular kid? Wouldn’t parents be frightened and furious if someone tried to take their child away? Yet the film is worth a viewing if only for the magnificent spectacle of the ancient scenes.
- Dennis Seuling