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Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child documents the search for a reincarnated Tibetan master by his disciple Tenzin Zopa

3 out of 4 stars


Unmistaken Child

  • Directed and written by Nati Baratz
  • Starring Tenzin Zopa
  • Classification: G

In Unmistaken Child , faith may not move mountains, but it definitely walks among them, wearing a red tuque and toting a backpack and trekking through the Himalayan valleys on a spiritual quest. Faith's mission is to search among the local peasant families for the little boy who is the "unmistaken" reincarnation of a recently dead Tibetan master. Once found, the child will be revered and worshipped and trained to grow into his anointed role. But this documentary is only partly a story of the chosen one; mainly, and more intriguingly, it's a chronicle of the choosing one, of the nervous young monk charged with the job of leading the search party.

His name is Tenzin Zopa, and we meet him in Nepal at the funeral pyre of his beloved Lama Konchog. From the age of seven, he had served the master, spending every day in close company with a man who clearly doubles as both a religious and a surrogate father. His grief during the funeral is palpable, and so is his anxiety about the task before him. Given his relationship with the deceased, Tenzin has been selected by the Dalai Lama to track down the master's reincarnated self, to rediscover his late father in the body of a new-born child.

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To non-believers, of course, all this will seem like superstition at best and patent absurdity the rest of the time. This leaves director Nati Baratz with a mission of his own: to encourage us, if not to suspend our disbelief, then to sustain an interest in the belief system of others. Luckily, he has a wonderful ally in the person and personality of Tenzin, who, in his charmingly accented English, emerges as a beguiling and ingenuous guide - kind, patient, tearful, playful, capable of doubting himself but never his faith. Baratz spent four years developing a bond with his protagonist, and their mutual trust is evident on the screen - the monk seems perfectly comfortable before a camera that clearly adores him.

But back to his quest. Tenzin literally sifts through the cremated ashes for any signs of reincarnated whereabouts. He relays those signs to the higher lamas who, more strangely still, outsource them to Taiwan for an "astrology check," which forecasts with "95-per-cent certainty" that the child will be found in those Himalayan valleys. Enter that backpack and red tuque, as Tenzin wanders the impoverished countryside, asking farmers in the field if they've "heard of any unusual children." Over the ensuing months and years, the chosen one remains elusive. And then he appears, a chubby toddler now, with the same "long ears" of his predecessor and an obvious fondness for the rosary beads, not to mention the toy trucks, that Tenzin pulls from his pack.

Yes, this can be unwittingly comic, but the validation that ensues is unremittingly serious. In an episode that plays like a scene out of Kundun , the kid is brought to a large monastery and put through a series of tests - presented, for instance, with a row of prayer bells and asked to pick out the one he used in his previous life. Tests passed, all that remains is certification from the Dalai Lama, followed by permanent removal from his home, a separation that seems more traumatic for the child than his parents.

Granted remarkable access, Baratz shows us each of these stages, which unfold exclusively from Tenzin's always affable and steady point of view. En route, something strange happens: The faith that walks among mountains almost proves contagious. We begin to see the tyke as Tenzin does - a self-regarding little boy who, save for the occasional tantrum, likes to laugh, possesses a real bossy streak, and regards adoration as his rightful due. No doubt, the chosen one, full of himself and quick to smile when the centre of attention, has all the right stuff. Then again, says that nagging voice, which kid doesn't?

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