'Unmistaken Child' is a gently compelling journey

"Unmistaken Child" is, in essence, an exploration of a deep and abiding faith, more specifically the absolute belief in reincarnation by Tibetan Buddhists.

This conviction is not discussed in an abstract or theological manner; rather, it is viewed through the prism of a young Buddhist monk, Tenzin Zopa. He is given the task by the Dali Lama of finding the rebirth of the soul of his master, Geshe Lama Konchog, a much-revered holy man who spent some 26 years in isolation, meditating, living in a small earth and stone room carved into the side of a mountain. Tenzin has spent 21 of his 28 years in service to Lama Konchog.

The film, absent any narration or interviews, is shot in a verite' style wherein the camera simply follows Tenzin as he sets out to discover the whereabouts of the child who could, in principle, be anywhere in the world.

Told by a Taiwanese astrologer that the youngster is somewhere in a Himalayan valley, Tenzin begins his quest, wrapped in his orange and red turque, wearing a red Northface shell and running shoes. As a figure, walking through the mountains, he presents an interesting juxtaposition.

It is startling to understand that Tenzin, first shown kneeling at the funeral pyre of master Lama Konchog, grieving for the loss of his teacher and his surrogate father, is now eagerly awaiting the moment when he will be reunited with his master once again, understanding that the Lama will be in the form of the unmistaken child.

And so he walks down into the breathtaking valleys where small villages are cradled by the surrounding snow-capped mountains, where an agrarian life continues as if a century has simply whispered past, leaving no significant imprint. In each village, Tenzin stops and asks if anyone knows of a special child in the area.

For a Western audience, the process of finding and then verifying the presence of the soul of Geshe Lama Konchog in a small child may require a suspension of disbelief. However, though the focus of the film soon becomes that small child, the essence of "Unmistaken Child" is in the person of Tenzin Zopa. It is he who carries the abiding faith that life is a stream that flows on. He has wrapped himself not only in the tugue but in a spirituality that transcends all that he encounters. As a character study, as a window into the life on one individual, as a window into the power of faith, "Unmistaken Child" is gently compelling.

"Unmistaken Child" continues the Ashland Independent Film Festival monthly series. It will open Friday, Oct. 16, at the Varsity Theatre, with two special screenings, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. The screenings will benefit the nonprofit AIFF and are made possible by Coming Attractions Theatres. Tickets for these showings are discounted 25 percent for AIFF members.

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