Tibetan Buddhist monks from a monastery in Bhutan, led by Lama Norbu, are searching for a child who is the rebirth of a great Buddhist teacher, Lama Dorje. Lama Norbu and his fellow monks believe they have found a candidate for the child in whom Lama Dorje is reborn: an American boy named Jesse Conrad, the young son of an architect and a teacher who live in Seattle. The monks come to Seattle in order to meet the boy.
Jesse is fascinated with the monks and their way of life, but his parents, Dean and Lisa, are wary, and that wariness turns into near-hostility when Norbu announces that he wants to take Jesse back with him to Bhutan to be tested. Dean changes his mind however, when one of his close friends and colleagues commits suicide because he went broke. Dean then decides to travel to Bhutan with Jesse. In Nepal, two children who are also candidates for the rebirth are encountered, Raju and Gita.
Gradually, over the course of the movie, first Jesse's mother and then Lama Norbu tell the life story of Prince Siddhartha, reading from a book that Lama Norbu has given to Jesse.
In ancient Nepal, a prince called Siddhartha turns his back on his comfortable and protected life, and sets out on a journey to solve the problem of universal suffering. As he progresses, he learns profound truths about the nature of life, consciousness, and reality. Ultimately, he battles Mara (a demon representing the ego), who repeatedly tries to divert and destroy Siddhartha. Through the final complete realization of the illusory nature of his own ego, Siddhartha attains enlightenment and becomes the Buddha.
In the final scenes of the movie, it is found that all three children are rebirths of Lama Dorje, separate manifestations of his body (Raju), speech (Gita), and mind (Jesse). A ceremony is held and Jesse's father also learns some of the essential truths of Buddhism. His work finished, Lama Norbu enters a deep state of meditation and dies. As the funeral ceremony begins, Lama Norbu speaks to the children, seemingly from a higher plane, telling them to have compassion; and just before the credits roll the children are seen distributing his ashes.
At the very end of the film credits, the sand mandala that was seen being constructed during the movie is destroyed, "with one swift stroke."Bridget Fonda as Lisa Conrad
Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha
Chris Isaak as Dean Conrad
Ruocheng Ying as Lama Norbu
Alex Wiesendanger as Jesse Conrad
Raju Lal as Raju
Greishma Makar Singh as Gita
Sogyal Rinpoche as Kenpo Tenzin
Ven. Khyongla Rato Rinpoche as Abbot
Ven. Geshe Tsultim Gyelsen as Lama Dorje
Jo Champa as Maria
Jigme Kunsang as Champa
Thubtem Jampa as Punzo
Surekha Sikri as Sonali (as Surehka Sikri)
T.K. Lama as Sangay
Doma as Ani la
Santosh Bangera as Channa (charioteer of prince Siddhartha)
The color schemes used in the movie are red-orange for Eastern locations, and blue-gray for Western locations. Jesse and his father are first presented in the red-orange scheme during their plane flight to Bhutan.
An unusual plot technique is later used through the final stages of the flashback sequences where the past gets merged with the present as the three children, Jesse, Raju and Gita find themselves actually in the scene with Prince Siddhartha, watching him as he is tempted by and overcomes egoic Mara.
Three Tibetan incarnate lamas have roles in the film. Sogyal Rinpoche appears in the earlier segments in the role of Khenpo Tenzin. The Venerable Khyongla Rato Rinpoche plays the part of the Abbot of the monastery in Bhutan. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche appears near the end of the film, when Lama Norbu is shown meditating overnight. Khyentse Rinpoche also served as a consultant to Bertolucci. In a later documentary about Khyentse Rinpoche entitled Words of my Perfect Teacher, his role in the film is discussed along with a short interview with Bertolucci.
The Buddha flashback scenes of Little Buddha were photographed in 65 mm Todd-AO by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The rest of the film was filmed in 35 mm anamorphic Technovision.
Jeremy Thomas later remembered making the film:
It was an interest in the story of Siddhartha, and what Tibetan Buddhism meant in Western society after the expulsion from Tibet. It was a very ambitious film, and largely shot in Kathmandu and Bhutan on location. And Bhutan, it was a joy to film in Bhutan... But like many things when you look back of course, trying to promote a film about Buddhism as an epic is maybe a tall order.
Thomas formed a bond with the Bhutanese Tibetan Buddhist Lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche who was an advisor on the film, and went on to help him make several other films such as The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003).
In addition to Kathmandu, another prominent Nepalese location used in the film was the city of Bhaktapur.
The soundtrack for the film was entirely composed by Japanese pianist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.Track listing
- "Main Theme" 2:50
- "Opening Titles" 1:47
- "The First Meeting" 1:50
- "Raga Kirvani" 1:28
- "Nepalese Caravan" 3:01
- "Victory" 1:45
- "Faraway Song" 3:18
- "Red Dust" 4:38
- "River Ashes" 2:25
- "Exodus" 2:33
- "Evan's Funeral" 4:28
- "The Middle Way" 1:50
- "Raga Naiki Kanhra / The Trial" 5:25
- "Enlightenment" 4:28
- "The Reincarnation" 1:52
- "Gompa - Heart Sutra" 2:38
- "Acceptance - End Credits" 8:57
The film received mixed to positive reviews, as it currently holds a 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It was nominated for one Razzie Award, Worst New Star for Chris Isaak. The film however was very successful in France, where it was the 19th highest-grossing film of the year, with 1,359,483 admissions sold.