Little Buddha

Film evening

Fri 25. August 2023, 19:00


Arvo Pärt Centre


Little Buddha, released in 1993, is the first major Hollywood film to feature Arvo Pärt’s music. Its director, the world-famous Italian author Bernardo Bertolucci, is best known in the cinema world for his rather scandalous or politically charged films, but Little Buddha, despite its length of over two hours, is probably his most family-friendly work. This bright, fairytale-like film that resembles a children’s bedtime story takes place in several time spaces which are separated by 2500 years, thousands of kilometres and many cultural misunderstandings. Dalai Lama, the superstar of the Buddhist world, sat alongside the director at the premiere in Paris on September 1, 1993, and it became one of the first works in Hollywood-influenced pop culture to explore the theme of the reincarnation of Buddhist lamas and the life of the Buddha. The film completes Bertolucci’s so-called “Eastern trilogy”, which also includes The Sheltering Sky and The Last Emperor, the latter of which won him nine Oscars in 1987.

Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, like his earlier works, seems to tell several stories — one set in the present day, about the secular Conrad family (played by Bridget Fonda and Chris Isaak) living in Seattle, who are approached by Buddhist monks with the startling news that their young son Jesse may be the reincarnation of a great Tibetan Buddhist teacher. To overcome the cultural conflict, they are given a biography of the founder of Buddhism, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the reading of which becomes a so-called film within a film. In it, we see a prince, who, contemplating on the suffering of humanity, leaves behind his life and attains enlightenment, becoming Buddha, with Keanu Reeves in the title role. Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu, who participated in the film as a consultant and played a small role in it, has today become the country’s best-known film director and also a world-famous Buddhist teacher.

Bertolucci’s film makes strong use of the culturally archetypal East-West contrast, which is also emphasised in the aesthetics. All the scenes that take place in Seattle are shot on 35mm film and accentuated with empty surfaces, glass and asphalt, and cool colours. In contrast, everything shot in Nepal and Bhutan, that is, all the action in the East, is filmed with a 65mm camera and filled with visual lushness and warm golden tones.

The main composer of the music for “Little Buddha” is Japanese maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto, who passed away this year, whose work can be enjoyed almost throughout the film.

However, just before the second hour begins, the minimalist percussion solo of Arvo Pärt’s work Sarah was 90 years old, which is the theme of Lama Norbu’s meditation on death, is played three times over several minutes, alternating with the sounds of Buddhist rituals.


Little Buddha
1993, USA
Director Bernardo Bertolucci

The Arvo Pärt Centre’s film evenings “Pärt & Film”, taking place from August 25th to August 27th, exhibit the surprisingly rich and versatile film language of screen works in which Arvo Pärt’s music is used.


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