A Hollywood producer from the '40s couldn’t concoct a better setup than this: After the death of a revered Tibetan monk, spiritual leaders send his most devoted disciple on a mission to find his reincarnated master. With a few mystical clues, he must travel far and wide in search of the one child who contains the teacher's spirit.
Israeli filmmaker Nati Baratz's Unmistaken Child is an intimate epic that immerses itself in a beautiful and foreign world. It’s a documentary brimming with joy and sadness, death and life, self-doubt and self-realization. It’s a coming-of-age story, a love story, and an old-fashioned odyssey. Most of all, it’s a film about the disciple, Tenzin Zopa. At the age of seven he defied his parents and left all he knew to follow the Lama Konchong. Twenty-one years later, he finds himself alone, suffering from the loss of the one dearest to him and overwhelmed by the task at hand.
Zopa is the embodiment of tenderness. We see his kindness as he travels from village to village, playing with the children he meets. At one point he apologizes for picking a flower from a tree, explaining that he asked the tree’s permission first. Surveying the remains of his master’s old hut, he finally breaks down. Baratz peeks into the Zopa’s grief, but cuts before the moment veers into exploitation. It’s this sort of restraint that gives the film its brilliance.
It would have been easy for Baratz to focus on his own experience following Zopa. Indeed, he has quite the story; he devoted four years of his life to this project, enduring altitude sickness, environmental hazards, cultural barriers, and the logistics of shooting miles away from any source of electricity. It would have been just as easy for him to cover a variety of wider issues. He could have debated the concept of reincarnation. He could have compared cultural ideas of family. He could have railed against the repression of Tibetan culture by the Chinese government. Instead, Baratz stays out of the way, following his characters through a seemingly simple chain of events. Some might call Unmistaken Child too simple or slow. Their complaints are understandable: There’s little drama, little suspense, and little externalized conflict in the documentary. And when the focus becomes diffused beyond Zopa, the film approaches the precipice of boredom. But it never goes over the edge.
By keeping Unmistaken Child so focused and so simple, Baratz lets us explore on our own the innumerable interpretations and ideas the events present. He tells one tale but gives us a glimpse at the volumes of untold stories surrounding it. This is one of the powers of exceptional cinema: to leave us awestruck at the sheer grandness of human experience.