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Archive for July 9th, 2011

By Bob Clark

When we think of religious epics, we tend to only think of the ones based on tales of the Bible, either from the Old Testament, from the various Gospels, or other texts based upon them. We’ve seen countless directors take on stories of the Judeo-Christian narrative– everybody from shameless epic-maestros like Cecile B. DeMille and William Wyler to artists of varying degrees of reverence and rebelliousness like Franco Zefferelli and Martin Scorsese. We’ve seen the life of Moses mined for grand spectacle and special-effects majesty and the life of Christ turned into existential tales of adventure and excitement. In tellings of the collections of stories handed down for countless generations, we’ve seen Sodom and Gomorrah rise and fall, we’ve seen Noah’s arc sail on the waters of flood and the winds of disaster. We’ve also, for good measure, seen the Ark of the Covenant caught in a race against time between goose-stepping Nazis and two-fisted archeologists. We’ve seen the Holy Grail evolve from being the cup that caught Christ’s blood at the crucifixion to a chalice that can grant eternal life (as long as you choose wisely), to an object of laughter and comedy for so many cocoanut-galloping crusaders. We’ve seen Jesus in the form of a peaceful guru, a passionate revolutionary and a guilt-ridden lover. We’ve even seen him as Darth Vader and Neo, for good measure, and countless other sci-fi messiahs who sacrifice themselves (and sometimes others) for the greater good.

But what of the other figures from world religions? Do we see them on the screen less frequently because there is less demand from the audience, or fewer believers willing to devote themselves to the cause behind the cameras? In thinking of cinematic depictions of the life of the Buddha, in particular, the pickings are rather slim. A stretch of portrayals from the silent era through the 60’s  in Asia, but none that ever broke the culture barrier, nor have lasted long in memory. It’s sad to say that, internationally, the best-known film of this type is probably Bernardo Bertolucci’s  Little Buddha, which offered Chris Isaak as the father of a California boy who may or may not be the reincarnation of a Tibettan monk, and is told the story of Siddhartha with Keanu Reeves in the starring role. Though there hasn’t been much out there in terms of cinema, there have been plenty of adaptations in various other mediums, with Osamu Tezuka’s manga being chief among them as a radically different, yet faithful telling of the foundation myth for all of Buddhism. In Tezuka’s 8 volume series, the life story of Prince Siddhartha is mixed with a blend of adventure and spectacle that helps both place his moral journey into a neat historical context and illustrate all the joys and miseries of the world that he comes to seek understanding for in his meditative quest.

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