Film review: Unmistaken Child

Depending on your perspective, there are two separate storylines running through the documentary Unmistaken Child. If you believe in reincarnation, director Nati Baratz has captured the story of Buddhist monk Tenzin Zopa’s quest to find the newest corporeal form of his late master, Geshe Lama Konchog. He and other experts examine everything from astrological charts to the direction of smoke plumes at Lama Konchong’s funeral pyre to narrow the search, culminating in their finding and testing a child who seems to match every prediction.
If you don’t believe, though, the story turns from miraculous to tragic. Zopa is clearly lost after the departure of Lama Konchong, who he has served since the age of seven. He tells the camera how he isn’t used to making decisions for himself, how empty his life feels without his best friend and mentor. In this version, he’s searching not for his master but a surrogate, eventually convincing a family to give up their child so he can have his friend back.
Regardless of which storyline you believe to be true, Unmistaken Child makes for interesting viewing. Baratz follows the story with confidence and an eye for atmosphere. When he finds an emotional moment, he lets the camera linger and never once succumbs to the temptation to add his own commentary, an increasingly (and frustratingly) rare quality in a documentarian. Whether the moment is spiritual, like when the child is asked to choose among items that may have belonged to Lama Konchog, or more grounded, like the heart-wrenching scene when the child has his head shaved to become a monk despite his tears and protests, Baratz lets the images speak for themselves.
The one drawback to this approach is the way it keeps the viewer at an arms length from the proceedings. Certain aspects of the monks’ belief system remain unexplained and details like the amount of time that passes between events aren’t always easy to discern. Still, with Zopa at the film’s centre, these moments of frustration rarely last. The monk is clearly thoughtful, sincere and dedicated, which makes his journey an enjoyable one for skeptics and believers alike.

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