If you have even enough interest in the subject of "Unmistaken Child" to read this first sentence of my review, you should not miss seeing this marvelous film.
Neither Roger Ebert's inanely dismissive review nor Stephen Holden's more nuanced discussion comes close to capturing the incredible achievement of this film: preserving for western and eastern audiences alike an astonishingly up-close and personal record of the entire process of choosing the reincarnation of a departed and revered Lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Other films have capitalized on this and recreated sanitized, prettified versions of it as fiction or "near-fiction". This film, produced over a period of years, must have started its journey much as the gentle and articulate monk did who, at the heart of the story, begins his quest for the reincarnated soul of his beloved master on sheer faith and sense of duty. Neither he nor the film-makers could have known from the outset whether the journey would lead to success or failure, and that, I think, is one of the marvels of this crisply edited, beautiful work of ethnological filmmaking: it embarks in its own process on the same journey as the monk, and, like the young monk, grows and is transformed in the process.
The film we watch for the first half or so of the movie is not the same film we see by the end. Like the monk, the child he finds, the child's family, and the community of seekers to whom the reincarnated lama is returned, the film is changed over time. Perhaps with fresh grant money, new and better cameras improve the image quality by the second or third year. The filmmakers, seemingly integrated ever more into the community they observe, are granted access to increasingly intimate moments of life in the family, in the interviewing and testing of the child by Rinpoches, the ritual hair-snipping and naming by the Dalai Lama, and the child's return to the monastery.
Ebert and Holden both underestimate the emotional and spiritual impact of this excellent film. Ebert displays astonishing provincialism in his critique: "I know I am expected to believe the tenets of a religion on the basis of faith, not common sense, but during this film, I found that very difficult. How reliable are wind directions, the interpretation of ashes and astrological readings? Would you give over your son on such a basis? Would you trust such a chosen one as your spiritual leader?" Such questions miss the point so widely as to be laughable. The film does not ask us to rationalize, explain, or even accept anything. It simply shows us the real journey of faith of one man, and the amazing fruits of his work. Through his eyes and experiences are laid before us with humility and authenticity a ritual practice suffused with beauty, mystery, emotion, sacrifice, joy, pain, and finally transcendence. What more could anyone ask for from a religious and spiritual experience? What more could one ask from a cinematic experience?