It's a good thing most of this movie is set in the Himalayas—only the "rooftop of the world" can provide the proper backdrop for Brad Pitt's Heinrich Harrer's gargantuan egocentrism. He is such a pain in the ass for the first hour of the film, that it's almost interesting; we gradually come to understand that this is a movie that doesn't let any transition occur without a lot of thought and time put into it. This is "Seven Years in Tibet"'s greatest accomplishment, and also its biggest problem.
When Harrer abandons his pregnant wife for the Himalayan peaks that have become a source of German climbing pride, he is quickly captured by an English outpost at the outset of World War II. Helped, somewhat, by a begrudging compatriot (David Thewlis), the two escape and starve their way through the early '40s. Smearing dirt on their Aryan good looks, they gain access to the forbidden city of Lhasa, then home to the Dalai Lama. After Thewlis gets the only Tibetan gal around, Pitt is forced to wander without purpose, pining for the son who is growing up without him. That all changes, of course, when the 11-year-old Dalai Lama invites him to the top of the city for a couple of years of Real World-tutoring. Gorgeously shot (in Chile, of all places), the recreation of Lhasa is nothing short of a cinematic victory. All of the rituals, costumes and pomp make for delicious eye candy—half of this movie seems like the best episode of Forbidden Cultures ever to air on the Discovery Channel. But Harrer's journey, while sweeping and majestic in both locale and philosophy, barely manages to tether the 2 1/2 hours together.
Fiercely mood-dependent, this movie can work both ways—if you want something vast and beautiful, you can be transported far from the Triangle; if not, "Seven Years in Tibet" may seem like Seven Years in the Theater.
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