If films that supposedly transpire in foreign languages are performed in English for the benefit of the audience, than why do the actors still speak with accents?
In the creatively multilingual Seven Years in Tibet, Brad Pitt begs such a question, as he has his way with an allegedly Austrian accent through widespread and wanton application of generic "movie accent" elements like long vowels and rolled R's. Yet this phonetic plum pudding, a synthetic dialect of sorts, fits the story's cross-cultural spirit. Ultimately, the blooming of emotion that marks the central transformation of Pitt's character in the face of Tibetan culture makes an otherwise sappy moral and politically correct focus much more palatable.
The story follows the adventures of one Heinrich Harrer (Pitt), an Austrian mountain climber whose mountaineering expedition eventually takes him to the holy Tibetan city of Lhasa. The journey marks an emotional awakening for Harrer, one that culminates in his befriending the Dalai Lama, whose friendship and spiritual guidance emboldens him to return to and face tangled domestic issues at home. The relative lack of compelling ideas and characters to identify with before this enlightenment--basically, during Harrer's journey to Tibet--acts as a foil for the movie's latter, more fulfilling half.
And director Jean-Jacques Annaud does deprive the audience of emotional stimulation of any kind, whether from cinematography or character development, until Harrer reaches Tibet. In one tense mountain-climbing scene in the Himalayas (or "Himilias," as Pitt refers to them), we see no panorama and remarkably little scenery in frame. Annaud keeps only the climbers in shot, and instead of majestic mountainscapes, only the snow and gray, gravely rock for a backdrop.
When one of the climbers falls and hangs for his life by a rope, Annaud seems determined not to cash in on the moment's cliffhanger potential. There's no music to augment the tension, no exciting swooping pans--only matter-of-fact, straight-on shots of the climbers on both ends of the rope, accompanied by the sounds of scraping and strained breathing. Later, too, as the action proceeds through unavoidably beautiful terrain, Pitt and other characters are shown on uninspiring rocky stretches or in close-quartered caves, tents and villages.
Pitt's character, both in writing and in performance, is similarly underdeveloped at first. We get the image of an inexplicably angry young man, unsatisfied with his family and domestic associations. Pitt's gruff, distracted and distant demeanor, his clipped and uncompassionate manner, is convincing he is by no means likable. In fact, as the audience does not identify or sympathize with him on his pre-Tibet misadventures, the movie's first half seems aimless, and Annaud dangerously skirts the edge of alienating the audience by depriving them of something to latch onto.
Pitt's ice seems to melt slightly when his thoughts turn to the family he left behind, which include a divorced wife and a child he has never seen. This subject serves as a bridge to the satisfying emotional resolution in Tibet: it is while trying to establish a correspondence with his estranged son that Harrer first enters Tibet.
At this point, the character of the movie changes noticeably. During one of Pitt's moments of apparent familial soul-searching, composer John Williams first unveils a full-bodied rendition of the theme he has been hinting at throughout the film. It is a brooding, melancholy, expressive and lilting string refrain, fully capable of supporting the sudden emotional charge which enters the movie.
Annaud doesn't hit you over the head with anything, but he now allows prolonged glimpses of the beautiful Tibetan landscape, and almost on a dime, Pitt is inspired to treat people with some respect. Once Harrer reaches the city of Lhasa, the screen explodes with color as the Tibetan customs, artwork and religious traditions are presented. The stimulus-starved audience gains new focus immediately on a suddenly human Harrer and his attempt to assimilate to his new surroundings.
What follows is one of the most pleasant culture clashes in recent cinema, as Harrer and his travel companion and their newfound hosts explore each other's customs. The detailed and genuinely interesting presentation of Tibetan tradition are welcomed by a now emotionally fertile Harrer and audience, as are the sometimes humorous reactions of Tibetans to western ways.
The interaction between Harrer and the Dalai Lama is quite touching, even sweet. Harrer is called on to tutor the 12-year-old religious sovereign in the ways of the west, and the child's extreme patience and innocent wisdom, coupled with an incredibly warm smile, make him very endearing.
It is during these scenes that Pitt is at his best, as his character opens up, finally inspired to reclaim his old family life.
While the audience is eating this up with a spoon, Annaud smoothly slips in political issues concerning China's occupancy of Tibet and the ongoing struggle of the Dalai Lama to maintain Tibet's traditional peaceful position. Both Harrer and we the viewers--who have been in parallel states of emotional responsiveness the whole way through--are at this point immediately receptive and sympathetic to the urgency of the Tibetan cause. In only half a movie, the audience comes to buy a complete shift in a character's personality, a familial reconciliation which was at first daunting and allegiance to a political cause it probably barely knew existed beforehand. Now that's show business.
But this amazing play upon our need for emotion is really to the movie's credit. In retrospect, though Seven Years in Tibet seems at first to proceed slowly and aimlessly, it is this gradual start that makes the closing catharsis so compelling and skillful--a quick change fulfilling, not hollow.
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