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Originally published July 16, 2009 at 3:17 PM | Page modified July 16, 2009 at 3:20 PM

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Movie review

'Unmistaken Child' gives extraordinary access to the search for a reincarnated soul

"Unmistaken Child" is an extraordinary, sometimes magical documentary about the search for a reincarnation of a Buddhist master in Nepal.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

"Unmistaken Child," a documentary with Tenzin Zopa, the Dalai Lama. Written and directed by Nati Baratz. 102 minutes. Not rated; appropriate for middle-school viewers and up. Varsity; see Page 16.

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Among the most memorable scenes in Martin Scorsese's 1997 "Kundun" — a biography of Tenzin Gyatso, the living Dalai Lama — is one in which a very young Gyatso undergoes certain tests to determine if he is the true reincarnation of Tibet's previous religious and political leader.

The tests require Gyatso to identify, from a range of possibilities, specific possessions of the last Dalai Lama. As dramatized by Scorsese with a blend of suspense and deep respect, the process is mesmerizing to behold, especially when little Gyatso unfailingly makes correct choices.

The scene was also remarkably accurate in detail, as one can tell from "Unmistaken Child," a fantastic documentary by Nati Baratz about a similar search for the reincarnation of a Buddhist master named Lama Konchog.

"Unmistaken Child" begins with the aftermath of Konchog's passing, in 2001, at age 84. Renowned in life, he is cremated and his ashes examined for clues as to where to seek his recycled soul.

The task falls to Konchog's unassuming assistant, Tenzin Zopa, to mount the quest alone. Zopa, who is in his late 20s and served Konchog for two decades, eventually sets out in the breathtakingly beautiful hills and valleys of Nepal.

Despite the slowness and uncertainties of his mission, Zopa goes from village to village, playfully investigating boys under 1 year of age. No one seems surprised when he turns up. Baratz captures, in the faces and responses of the region's adults, a polite understanding that reincarnations are likely to be sought and plucked from local families.

While "Unmistaken Child" unquestionably has a bit of Shangri-La magic, the film isn't worshipful. Instead it suggests that altruism and sacrifice are both practical gifts to the world and a religious mystery. One realizes, for example, that Zopa — who served a lama 60 years his senior — will now spend the remainder of his years raising, instructing and ultimately serving Konchog's new manifestation. Meanwhile, the parents of that chosen child visibly swallow their grief as they turn their son over to a monastery, never to live with them again.

Baratz's access to every stage of the process — from Zopa's selection of a candidate to the testing of that candidate (virtually a mirror of those "Kundun" scenes) to the blessing of the Dalai Lama himself — is phenomenal, almost indescribably privileged.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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