Little Buddha is a drama directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and produced by Jeremy Thomas and released in 1993. Judging by the examples of such movies as The Last Emperor and The Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci has always been interested in exploring the connections between the modern and traditional, the everyday and exotic, and between the West and the East. In Little Buddha, these themes intertwine into a rich storyline of a boy completing a journey to his discovery, a search of a monk for his lama, and the mythical legend about Prince Siddhartha’s route to enlightenment. The storyline is supported by beautifully done visuals, which contribute to the creation of a well-realized similitude about the nature and ideas behind Buddhism.
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From watching the first ten minutes of Little Buddha, it becomes evident that the director chose an opposition of two color schemes to designate the regions of the world where the events took place. For the Eastern world, the color palette is warm, with red, orange, and brown dominating imagery. For the Western world, the colors are cool and muted. The warm colors were also associated with the religion of Buddhism and the positive perspective it was given in the film.
In order to explore how Buddhism was depicted in the film, several aspects of the story should be discussed. First, the key storyline is directly related to Buddhism. As Lama Norby, a monk from Tibet discovers that there was a boy in Seattle who could be reincarnated from Lama Dorje, he flies to the USA to deliver the news to the boy and his family. To teach the boy about Buddhism, the monk gives him a book called Little Buddha, which explored the life and the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama. Very quickly, the boy gets caught up in the story of the enlightened man who lived twenty-five hundred years ago. The tale of Siddhartha Gautama is fascinating because it reflects the imaginative nature of Buddhism as a whole: during the birth of Siddhartha, a tree supported his mother, when the boy started making his first steps, lotus flowers bloomed underneath his feet. Despite belonging to a royal family, Siddhartha decided not to shelter himself from the pain and suffering of the world. After giving up everything that he owned, Siddhartha became an ascetic; however, he soon realized that reaching the enlightenment was only possible through finding a middle ground between the good and the bad in the world.
The life story of Siddhartha Gautama is the most meaningful to Buddhism because it reflects the ideas and issues that lie at the center of the religion. For example, the movie heavily focuses on reincarnation, which is a detrimental component of Buddhism because its followers believe that when a person dies, the soul does not die but is reborn into another person. This explains why monks were searching for Lama Dorje’s reincarnation. The family of the boy who was the most likely reincarnation of Lama is not Buddhist. However, as Jesse learns more about the religion, he convinced others to go to Nepal, and to meet other monks was the best thing for him. Therefore, if reincarnation were not an aspect of Buddhism, the would-be no story about Jesse because the monks would never have gone to find him in Seattle. Consequently, without reincarnation, the boy would not have known about Siddhartha and never would never have the experience he had when discovering Buddhism.
Buddhism played a detrimental role in the lives of Jesse, his parents, and other children whom monks selected as possible reincarnates of Siddhartha Gautama. Due to the central belief in reincarnation, Buddhist monks were able to significantly influence Jesse’s life path. The newly discovered part of his identity allowed Jesse to change his perspective on the world and lead by Buddhist ideologies to become a powerful lama in the future. It is possible that after Jesse lives his life, other monks will be on the look for his reincarnation, which illustrates the ‘full circle’ ideology that Buddhism embodies.
Little Buddha is a stunning and successful attempt of Bernardo Bertolucci to bridge the gap between the ancient religion of the East and the everyday life of regular Westerners to whom Buddhism is a foreign thing. It is important to distinguish the film not only for its aflutter treatment of Buddhism as a religious ideology but also for the use of visuals and imagery. The beautiful shots of nature, the imagery of temples, and the retrospective storyline surrounding Siddhartha Gautama’s life were all detrimental to painting an enigmatic but at the same time simple nature of Buddhism as a religion. To conclude, Little Buddha can be considered a beautifully-done contribution to the cinematic works about Buddhism. Religion can be a sensitive topic for some people; however, the way in which Little Buddha depicted Buddhism made the ideas and beliefs appealing and interesting to the audience that may not know much about it.