Nati Baratz’s Unmistaken Child follows Tenzin Zopa, the lifelong disciple of the recently deceased Tibetan Master Lama Konchog, in his quest to discover that to which the title refers: the unmistaken child who is the reincarnation of Zopa’s beloved master. The documentary was shot verité style over the course of four years, with Baratz receiving unprecedented access to a process not often documented. Unfortunately, the straightforward, fly-on-the-wall approach that Baratz takes doesn’t do justice to the supernatural aspect of such an incredible tale.
Appointed by the Dalai Lama to undertake the greatest search of his life, the young protagonist is unflinchingly honest about his hopes and fears from the beginning, telling Baratz’s lens that he was raised to follow and always told what to do. Now he’s been instructed to lead, which terrifies him. Clearly, this man is on an inner journey as much as an outer one, if not more so. Yet inner journeys are not inherently cinematic—an issue that Scorsese overcame by opting for a fictional approach when he tread similar territory with Kundun.
As lovely as the elegiac music and breathtaking shots of the Tibetan countryside are in Unmistaken Child, they don’t really move things along. Zopa receives literal direction in where to seek the blessed toddler by following the smoke signals and the number of pearl relics found at Konchog’s funeral pyre, and by consulting astrological charts with other masters. He shows the tiny contenders the lama’s rosary, awaiting signs of recognition from the tots. These are all interesting details, but they are not viscerally connected to the actual magic that occurs when one pudgy prospect takes on the test of picking out objects, from a bell to a hand drum, that he used in his “previous life.”
In fact, the film only becomes truly engrossing an hour in when the chosen one’s parents are asked to give up their son to the monastery—i.e., to sacrifice their own flesh and blood for society’s greater good. But instead of exploring how parents are able to cope with such a momentous event, Baratz simply glosses over the crucial moment in the briefest of scenes. This leads one to reflect upon the recent spate of poet-directors on these shores—Reichardt, Bahrani, Hammer, to name just three—who use their craft to create magic rather than relying on story alone. Baratz, an Israeli filmmaker, has made a mistake in thinking that by simply sitting back and letting events unfold, life’s deepest mysteries will be revealed. As Tenzin Zopa himself shows, unearthing the pearl is only the start.