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— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Seven Years in Tibet is great, in both senses of the word. Much of the movie takes place in the Himalayas; the setting and the cinematography are spectacular. Even those who dislike this movie must admit that.

But not all of Seven Years takes place on a mountain. Most of the movie follows Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) in his dealings with other people. In fact, if this epic movie has one center, it is Harrer, and on those terms, this movie is excellent.

Some critics have complained that there’s “too much Brad Pitt, not enough Dalai Lama.” Others criticize the Western condescension of Eastern culture. The latter comment is a valid complaint, and it is perhaps the reason this movie doesn’t deserve four stars. The former, though, fails to take the movie on its own terms. This movie tells the story Heinrich Harrer’s life and emotional growth. In that life, the Dalai Lama is a supporting character.

The movie opens with “Harry” leaving his pregnant wife in Austria and setting off to climb Nanga Parbet, a mountain in the Himalayas that his country has presumptuously adopted as its own. His wife begs him to stay but, annoyed, he coldly rejects her. At the station, official German well-wishers are excited for Harry’s attempt on Nanga Parbet, and they give him a Nazi flag to plant on its summit. Coldly, again, he takes their flag, and it is never seen again. His reasons for leaving Austria are purely selfish. Neither fatherhood nor fatherland matters to him.

On their first attempt on Nanga Parbet, Harry’s party is beaten by the weather and has to turn around. They get down to the camp and find themselves prisoners of war. War has broken out between Britain and Germany — and by association, India and Austria.

Harry doesn’t take to prison well, and makes several escape attempts (reminiscent of Steve “The Cooler King” McQueen’s role in The Great Escape). A bitter but resigned “Dear John” letter from his wife, and his comrades’ enthusiasm, inspire one last bold escape attempt. Most of the prisoners do escape, and most of them are recaptured, but not Harry and Peter Aufschneiter (David Thewlis).

The pair make their way out of the unfriendly territory of India and into neighboring Tibet, but they find they are no more welcome here than they were in India. They decide to stick together in spite of the friction between them, and they spend quite a while wandering through the Himalayas — long enough for them to grow long beards and dark, leathery suntans.

Since his wife gave up on him and the world is at war, Harry now has no reason to go home. In fact, his life has very little purpose at all. Wandering the beautiful land and encountering its spiritual people, he begins to fill this void in his life with the Himalayas.

The movie tells us that Tibetans walk long journeys to pray at distant altars to atone for past wrongdoings. The longer the walk, the greater the atonement. It is clear that, deliberate or not, the walking is clearing Harry’s head and his spirit. Harry is beginning to understand his flaws and internally atone for them.

But atoning for past sins is only part of Harry’s epic journey. Changing the current and future man is the other half.

Eventually, driven toward the protection of civilization by bandits, Harry and Peter find themselves in a caravan entering the forbidden city of Lhasa, Tibet, where Westerners are not allowed. Once inside, Harry is caught stealing something to eat (from a dog, no less), but the dog’s owner is kind and invites them to stay. A little influence with the local politicians, and Harry and Peter are welcomed into Tibetan society.

Harry is invited to an audience with the Dalai Lama (played by three actors, though mostly by Jamyang Wang Chuck), a young boy who has a sinful appetite for news and facts from the outside world. Harry handles the formality of speaking to a Dalai Lama awkwardly, but the boy takes to him and invites him to become a tutor, of sorts.

This is where critics complain about Western condescension of Tibetan culture. It is presumptuous to take the customs of a different culture lightly. And it’s not just Pitt’s character that presumes — Annaud himself is guilty. He includes a scene, played up for comedy, of Tibetans treating earthworms very reverently. Ha ha! Those silly Tibetans!

Harry has atoned for his past failures, but he still has room for emotional growth. For example, when his best friend gets married, he resents their happiness; he is jealous. The last third of the movie shows Harry teaching the young Dalai Lama and immersing himself in work. These responsibilities help him grow and genuinely change for the better.

I admit I am not a very good judge of acting. And because so many people talk of Brad Pitt as a filmic object, it’s hard to decide if what’s effective is his presence or his performance. Either way, I found his portrayal of Henry to be very effective; his character genuinely grew from beginning to end. The change was subtle, but it was there. (And, hey, he managed to keep his accent all the way through.)

The other performance that really stood out (for me) was that of Jamyang Wang Chuck as the 14-year-old Dalai Lama, whose innocence, curiosity, and wisdom were not marred by bad-child-actor syndrome.

But maybe the best thing about Seven Years in Tibet is the spectacular setting and cinematography. Even if that were all this movie had in its favor, it might deserve a recommendation. Luckily, there is more than just pretty pictures, and this movie is well recommended, but be prepared to forgive it its Western perspective.