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'Unmistaken Child' a must-see documentary

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

One of 2009's most intriguing documentaries played so briefly that you probably missed it.

But thanks to the eternal life promised by DVD, you can see "Unmistaken Child" in the comfort of your own living room. It can rock your world.

In Nati Baratz's film a Tibetan monk named Tenzin Zopa is assigned to find the reincarnated soul of his beloved teacher, a saintly Buddhist master named Lama Konchog.

"Unmistaken Child" plunges us into a world in which beliefs that Westerners usually view as pure superstition are accepted without so much as a shrug.

Zopa — a sweet faced fellow of about 30 — weeps as he describes the man with whom he spent the last 20 years and whom he regards as his spiritual father. But there's not much time for grief. Somewhere in the world Konchog's soul has taken up residence in a new body. Zopa must find him.

Buddhist astrologers provide a few clues. They suggest that he search in Nepal's mountainous Tsum Valley. Zopa is told to look for a family whose last name begins with "A."

And then he's off, traveling by train, by car, by helicopter, by jet plane and especially by foot, wandering through some of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world asking the whereabouts of any children born in the time frame pinpointed by the astrologers.

Anyone doing the same thing here in America would soon be hauled off to the loony bin or a jail cell. But the people who encounter the red-robed Zopa aren't in the least amazed or frightened. They do everything they can to help him in his quest.

Zopa comes across a 2 -year-old boy who grabs hold of the late Konchog's prayer beads and refuses to give them up. This is a promising sign.

Facing a table covered with religious objects, the tyke unerringly picks out those that belonged to the late master. Hey, his family's name even begins with an "A."

The child's peasant parents are asked if they're willing to turn him over to be raised in a monastic setting of chastity and contemplation. While saddened to see him go, they feel it's their religious duty to comply. If their little boy grows up to pray for the salvation of all sentient beings, his father says, the sacrifice will be worth it.

Wow.

Baratz, an Israeli, records all this like a fly on the wall. "Unmistaken Child" has no narration, no talking head analysis, no editorializing.

It's a mind-blowing look at a world most of us cannot imagine.

———

—"The Dead"

Director John Huston excelled at adventure and action. In his resume are classics like "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The African Queen" and "The Man Who Would be King."

Yet his last film and crowning achievement, the atypically melancholy "The Dead," is almost unknown, probably because it's never been available on DVD.

Until now.

Based on a James Joyce story, "The Dead" unfolds in Ireland in 1904 at a New Year's dinner party. It may seem rather unremarkable — small talk, music, food and drink.

After everyone's gone home a newspaper writer (Donal McCann) is rocked out of his complacency when his wife (Anjelica Huston) tearfully admits that she still yearns for her first love, a man who died years before. As snow covers Dublin the husband contemplates his life and the mortality that unites all men.

You say that doesn't sound like much of a movie? You're so wrong.

"The Dead" is achingly gorgeous, a lived-in look at a long-gone life of gentility. It's also a heart-gripping meditation on the human condition.

Huston died before the film was released over Christmas 1987. Every serious movie lover must see it.

But I wish Lionsgate had done more. No commentary (plenty of cast members are still kicking), no mini-docs, no extras at all. "The Dead" deserves better."

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