The Dalai Lama: Scientist, 2019, 1 ½ stars

Dalai Lama lecture

Scientist  doc is informative but uncinematic

Image copyright PeaceJam Productions / Gravitas Ventures

Exclusive to MeierMovies, April 17, 2020

Allow me to wax theoretical: Documentaries – indeed, all films – can be divided into four categories. The first two are easily noticeable: those that have something important to say and know how to say it, and those that have nothing important to say and still don’t know how to say it. The former category is comprised of masterpieces while the latter is packed with what I call Super Turkeys. But it’s the films in the other two categories that are tougher to figure.

The third category consists of films that don’t have much to say but still find a way to say it in an interesting or stylish way. They overcome their subjects. Docs in that category include Errol Morris’s Tabloid and Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel’s Finders Keepers: two bizarre, Jerry Springer-worthy tales with little journalistic merit but great entertainment value.

The Dalai Lama: Scientist is not that type of doc. Instead, it fits into the final category: films that have something to say but no clue how to say it. And that’s especially sad because the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader-in-exile of the most recognizable school of Tibetan Buddhism, has lots to say, and he usually does it in an eloquent and inspirational way. Even more important, his heart is usually in the right place.

The same can be said for Dawn Gifford Engle, the writer and director of this new documentary that explores the Dalai Lama’s love of science and decades-long effort to bridge the gap between Western science and Buddhist philosophy: a gap that is surprisingly small. But despite her best intentions and the profound subject, Engle struggles to make her film, well, a film. Instead, it plays like an overblown PowerPoint presentation, a series of lectures or a corporate video. Laden with informational charts that don’t stay on screen long enough to comprehend, encumbered by overscoring, dominated by decades-old grainy videos and burdened by a voiceover narration straight from the Siri school of acting, the doc never rises to the level of Lama.

The movie has value for philosophers and scientists, specifically those interested in quantum physics and neuroscience. And it inspired this reviewer to look more into the life of the Dalai Lama, a man described as “half Buddhist monk, half scientist.” But the film is dry as cosmic dust.

The film has screened at several festivals around the world and will be available for streaming and DVD/Blu-ray on May 19, 2020.

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