The Dalai Lama is getting old. At 82 years old, His Holiness is still thinking of issues big and small, but he’s also started to consider his legacy: What love can he leave the world with? How can he impart his knowledge of the “inner enemy,” negative emotions, on to a new generation? And, perhaps most importantly, what is next for the long lineage of Dalai Lamas?
It’s here where “The Last Dalai Lama?” notches itself, or at least tries to. After catching up with His Holiness at his 80th birthday, the documentary jumps back to when he first fled Tibet as a 19-year-old. Though he was a teenager, he’d already been chosen as the 14th Dalai Lama, a spiritual leader for the Tibetan people. And by the time he was a 20-year-old, he was already a refugee from the Chinese government.
Though the film has access to His Holiness, along with some of his inner circle, authors, and researchers (we’ll get to that in a second), it never manages (or perhaps wants) to dive too deeply. It’s a presentation of a timeline, photos, and memories with very little commentary or connection.
“The Last Dalai Lama?” isn’t even too interested in pressing the question posed by its title. Or, at least, it’s just as interested in that monumental inquiry as it is in checking in with the Dalai Lama’s work around the world. It bounces around his efforts — imparting his wisdom on the next generation to help them deal with negativity, praying for the Chinese, respect for his personhood from holy leaders around the world — without any insight into what these things mean.
Towards the end, the film visits the home of former-President George W. Bush himself, to hear about his portrait of His Holiness and how he became the first president to appear in public with the Dalai Lama. As we watch footage of His Holiness receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Bush (with a speech praising Bush’s courage from none other than Mitch McConnell) it feels perfunctory, almost.
Perhaps the real problem lies in lack of flair. “The Last Dalai Lama” is not a super slickly produced documentary; more of a catch-as-catch can collection of images, footage and points of the Dalai Lama than following a strict narrative. Transitions might’ve tied the room together a bit cleaner, but it wouldn’t have pushed the ideas into deeper terrain.
Towards the end, His Holiness is asked if he has any hate for the Chinese. He immediately responds “No,” and shares that he includes them in his daily prayers. It harkens back to an earlier interview with a priest who said to just be around His Holiness is to see a cleaner, better way of living, filled with compassion and grace.
It’s not that the grace espoused is absent, but it’s told to an audience much more often than it’s allowed to simply be shown. His Holiness has led a storied life, and he has said that it will end with him, having recently decided to not reincarnate and end the Dalai Lama legacy. He contains multitudes, and “The Last Dalai Lama” doesn’t manage to put you in the presence of that as much as it should.
“The Last Dalai Lama,” opens Oct. 6 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian (805 E. Pine St.)