The movie Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, shows the Tibetan society as one that is singular for its peacefulness and respect for life. Although the movie focuses on the journey of one man, the Austrian of German allegiance, Heinrich Herrer, the real underlying message is to show the workings of a culture that is very foreign (as in strange) and mysterious to the rest of the world, but worthy of being imitated.
Assuming that this movie is based on fact (and we must assume this in order to provide evidence from the film, albeit the possibility that fact may have been fictionalized for cinematic purposes), Tibet was a peace-loving and independent small country ruled by the Dalai Lama, seen as the incarnation of the God of Compassion. The respect for life was so great that not even the smallest creature was intentionally harmed, as we see in a scene where Heinrich, upon request of the Dalai Lama, is building a movie house for the Holy City, Lhasa, and is confronted by one of the workers who states that they can’t continue working if they have to kill the earthworms. He goes on to say, “This worm could have been your mother in another life.” When Heinrich tells the Dalai Lama about it, the Dalai Lama enlightens him further on a philosophy of life that Heinrich gradually comes to acquire himself by telling him that all of the people of Tibet consider that any living creature could be their mother, such is the respect for life.
We see a cold, harsh man at the beginning of the film -a man who doesn’t want the son he and his wife are expecting and goes off to conquer a mountain in the Himalayas- turned into a human being, someone we can respect and trust, even as the Dalai Lama shows him respect and trust, considering him to be not only worthy of looking up to in some ways, but also to be a friend.
The transformation comes about through a series events, the most important of which is the contact with the people and culture of Lhasa, where Heinrich and his friend Peter -after having endured hardships like being in a P.O.W. camp, traveling on foot for hundreds of miles in severe weather conditions, injuries and frostbite- are accepted into the home of a high government official.
The draw of the Tibetan culture and the Holy City is so strong that Heinrich and Peter decide to stay there, and Peter even ends up marrying the town seamstress or “tailor,” as she so unequivocally points out, after both men compete for her affections and Peter ends up winning. They come to refer to the city as Paradise, and indeed after the invasion of the Chinese under the command of Mao Tse Tung, one has a definite feeling of Paradise lost.
The remoteness and mystery of the city are a key part of the movie, and appear to be part of the director’s intention of showing Tibet as an almost otherworldly place with a moral fiber that most people can only hope to aspire to, a place of true holiness, and not just a rigidity based on routines and rituals with no real substance to it. The young actor playing the part of the Dalai Lama child owns the role, masterfully conveying a ruler who, despite himself and the regal demeanor expected of him, shows a playful innocence typical not only of a child, but also of a true spiritual leader capable of teaching and guiding, as so often observed in other Holy Men who have gone down in history and who we have been fortunate enough to learn about through books and the personal accounts of those who knew them.
Another important scene that so eloquently speaks of the nature of the people and the city is when Heinrich talks about the preparations for defending the city from the Chinese invasion, saying, “The spectacle of a peace-loving nation, vainly attempting to create a military!” while watching the men attempt to gather weapons and organize themselves. He recalls how once he was a part of the German Nazis, who not too long ago had had the same agenda as China, that of overpowering weaker peoples, drawing an important parallel between Tibet’s situation with the Chinese and the situation of countries such as Poland during the period of World War II.
The movie successfully establishes a contrast between the benefits of peace and the harmfulness of war, and could be considered an anti-war movie based on historical events that, in this particular case, changed the country of Tibet forever. After the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India, attempting to rule from afar; the temples and courts of Lhasa were turned into shrines to Mao Tse Tung, and the people were subjected to military rule.
Even today Tibet is associated with the Dalai Lama and high spiritual learning. The movie serves to open the doors of Tibet and let us inside a world and a time in history that would be very difficult to duplicate, a world that places importance on reality and truth, and not the appearances and trappings of the material world, a time when spirituality was appreciated and the Dalai Lama embodied it within the walls of a remote, isolated city that was free from outside influences and able to express its love for life and serenity without the fear of ever having to betray its beliefs in order to defend its existence.
And in the difficult and sometimes tragic events of a lonely man who learns how to be a friend, we are able to see the positive influence of love and kindness towards others, the ability of a soundly developed culture with deeply ingrained values to transform everything it touches into something better. There is a definite message conveyed in this movie, one of hope and of example, set on film to better emblazon into our conscience the fact that peace is possible, that it actually existed and that it is always better to preserve than to destroy. The story of Lhasa and the Dalia Lama is one worth being told and being heard over and over again, and the fact that it is on film better serves the purpose of interiorizing it, leaving images that can have as much of a positive influence on us as the Dalia Lhama and the Holy City had on Heinrich Herrer.
By showing a man’s physical and inner journey to a place that he can be proud to call his true self, Seven Years in Tibet manages to show the importance of a culture that does not believe in war, that does not believe in killing, that does not believe in harm.
And so the movie ends, with Heinrich leaving Lhasa for Austria in search of the son who he first refused and then could not keep out of the back of his mind, taking with him the beloved music box that the Dalia Lama had received as a child and has now bestowed on him, the one that plays Debussy’s wistful “The Moonlight”; finding his son and recovering the relationship that was meant to be between them. And in the end we see him mountain climbing with his son, in a place that looks very much like the Himalayas, atop a peak where he leaves behind a Tibetan flag as a marker that he was there, much like the movie leaves behind in its wake a feeling that there is something out there, something that we need to find, something that we can seek out by maybe taking a journey, by following our heart and listening to our spirit, maybe not going as far as Heinrich Herrer did in a physical sense, but traveling just as long to arrive at that place where we are free to be what we were meant to be, that place that is ourselves.