Lama Norbu comes to Seattle in search of the reincarnation of his dead teacher, Lama Dorje. His search leads him to young Jesse Conrad, Raju, a waif from Kathmandu, and an upper class Indian girl. Together, they journey to Bhutan where the three children must undergo a test to prove which is the true reincarnation. Interspersed with this, is the story of Siddharta, later known as the Buddha. It traces his spiritual journey from ignorance to true enlightenment.
Little Buddha is a 1993 Italian-French-British drama film directed by Bernardo Bertolucci and starring Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda and Keanu Reeves as Prince Siddhartha (the Buddha before his enlightenment). Produced by Bertolucci’s usual collaborator, Jeremy Thomas, it marked the team’s return to the East after The Last Emperor.
The Buddha flashback scenes of Little Buddha were photographed in 65 mm Todd-AO by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The rest of the film was filmed in 35 mm anamorphic Technovision. The color schemes used in the movie are red-orange for Eastern locations, and blue-gray for Western locations. Jesse and his father are first presented in the red-orange scheme during their plane flight to Bhutan.
Jeremy Thomas later remembered making the film: “It was an interest in the story of Siddhartha, and what Tibetan Buddhism meant in Western society after the expulsion from Tibet. It was a very ambitious film, and largely shot in Kathmandu and Bhutan on location. And Bhutan, it was a joy to film in Bhutan… But like many things when you look back of course, trying to promote a film about Buddhism as an epic is maybe a tall order.”
Thomas formed a bond with the Bhutanese Tibetan Buddhist Lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche who was an advisor on the film, and went on to help him make several other films such as The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003). In addition to Kathmandu, another prominent Nepalese location used in the film was the city of Bhaktapur.
An unusual plot technique is later used through the final stages of the flashback sequences where the past gets merged with the present as the three children, Jesse, Raju and Gita find themselves actually in the scene with Prince Siddhartha, watching him as he is tempted by and overcomes egoic Mara.
Little Buddha (1994)
Directed by: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda, Ruocheng Ying, Chris Isaak, Greishma Makar Singh, Raju Lal, Alex Wiesendanger, Jo Champa, Surekha Sikri, Thubtem Jampa
Screenplay by: Rudy Wurlitzer, Mark Peploe
Production Design by: James Acheson
Cinematography by: Vittorio Storaro
Film Editing by: Pietro Scalia
Costume Design by: James Acheson
Set Decoration by: Bruno Cesari, Manohar Shrestha
Art Direction by: Gianni Giovagnoni, Andrew Sanders, Steve Simmonds
Music by: Ryuichi Sakamoto
MPAA Rating: PG for some disturbing images.
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Release Date: December 1, 1993 (France), May 25, 1994 (United States)