Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng) travels to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his teacher, Lama Dorje, and thinks he has found one candidate (later in northern India two more are found) in a Caucasian boy, Jesse Conrad (Alex Wiesendanger). This is not so strange as it seems as Lama Dorje had been engaged in missionary activities in North America. The parents, Lisa (Bridget Fonda) and Dean (Chris Isaak) are wary, but finally agree that Jesse and his father travel to Bhutan where Jesse - with the other two children - has to undergo a test to prove the true reincarnation.
Lama Norbu gives Jesse a storybook about the life of the Buddha and Bertolucci intercuts the story of Siddharta, who later became known as the Buddha, with the contemporary scenes. The story of Siddharta's search for enlightenment is shot in rich red-golden hues, the Seattle scenes in a cold blue. In the end, past and present are mixed as the three children find themselves actually in the scene with Buddha, watching him as he is overcomes the temptations of Mara while meditating under the Bodhi-tree. His mission fulfilled, at the end of the film Lama Norbu dies peacefully while meditating.
Central to the film are the characters of the kind Lama Norbu (very ably played by the Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng, who also shone in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor), Siddharta (played by Keanu Reeves with just the right balance) and the three children, who are all able actors. Negative reviews have harped on the weak acting of the father (Chris Isaak) or the fact that it is rather unnatural that American parents would agree to have their child engaged in this way with a foreign religious group. I believe that Bertolucci has done this on purpose, he wanted the focus of the film on the beauty of the timeless story of the Buddha and not on contemporary bickering. For the same reason, he made the parents consciously into rather vague non-entities - their presence is to a certain degree necessary, but they should not interfere with the main story. The focus is wholly on the introduction of Buddhism to a wider audience.
Bertolucci tells the Buddha's story as if to children, for aren't we all ignorant about this subject? These scenes have disparagingly been called a "Buddhist Sunday school story," but isn't that the best way to present the Buddhist "gospel"? After all, Siddharta's life was very peaceful, there is no violence here as in Jesus' Passion story, so Gibson-like sadomasochistic antics are out of the question.
Siddharta has been brought up as an Indian prince in a very secluded environment and is shocked when he realizes the unforgiving truth of impermanence: every living being must ultimately perish. After a hundred years, none of us now living will be still around. Siddharta discovers the Middle Way between a worldly life and asceticism and teaches the Four Noble Truths: that all is suffering, that this is caused by our attachment to external things, that such suffering can however be stopped, and what the path is that leads to the end of suffering. The suffering of all living things also leads Siddharta to the development of a great compassion, and the wish to help others, for basically all life is one.
By the way, the film introduces Tibetan Buddhism which differs from other types of Buddhism by putting reincarnation central -as seen in the film through the search for a reincarnated master. But in fact, the Buddha never talked about reincarnation (which is a sort of pan-Indian / Tibetan folk belief rather than part of the Buddhist teachings) and most Buddhists today (as in Japan) also do not believe in reincarnation.
That is my only point of criticism about what is a very beautiful and warm film, a film that takes us right into the heart of the world's greatest religion by illustrating the impermanence of all life and stressing the value of compassion.
My evaluation: 10 points out of 10 for the snake that protects the Buddha from rain while he meditates in the forest. It is unbelievable that this wonderful film at present only scores 5.8 at the IMDB. The beautiful cinematography and the impressive scenes of the life of the Buddha or those shot in the monastery in Bhutan are alone worth 8 points! The music by Sakamoto Ryuichi is also of a very high standard.
Dharma site review.