Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. They might well be the first Indian and Chinese films respectively you have ever seen. Links are provided. Another warning: although I enjoyed these films greatly, I have something to say against Buddha and Confucius themselves. Pardon the intensity, but do correct me and engage if you have cause!
Gautama Buddha, 2007—set in North India around 550-450 BCE
Visual: Immediately I loved the attractive sets and colorful costumes. An older camera must have been deliberately used to make the film seem older and I think this had pretty good effect in the storytelling.
Verbal: The script was serious and literary, with much to analyze. Buddha is obviously given the largest share of speech, and he is always teaching and reflecting with success. There are also beautiful folk songs that are meant to adorn the story.
Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic connection, at least from my position. He leaves his wife on a whim and treats everyone with a sense of superiority and grandeur, and then when he returns to see her and his son after many years, he is without any emotion at all—a mere piece of wood. Indeed, if one looks closely enough, some of Buddha’s behavior and speech resembles that of a psychopath! Since the film was quite successful, the depiction and performance offered must have been very acceptable to the viewer and even admired as such.This implies that the film was not only meant to celebrate Buddha, but also in effect to deify him. He is often called “bhagwan” (god-man) by his followers and others who meet him, including former enemies. The question that the film (and indeed the story itself) raised but did not answer for me was, what did Buddha preach that was really new and why is he so admired for his erratic individualism?
Thematic/Moral: The main moral and theme was the promotion of peace and happiness by the limitation of desire. I admire the film for this purpose, but not so much the story itself. One thing I disliked is that women (in the form of the wife and later the courtesan) are placed on the side of desire and serve as obstacles to tempt the Buddha from transcendent salvation, but certainly he overcomes them because he is transcendent. Women are included in Buddha’s school at the very end, but we still don’t see any of the feminine power and agency of the traditional Hindu religion, where women serve as priestesses and oracles, for example. Moreover, regarding desire, even though Buddha merely organized a few ideas already known, Buddha must have desired excessively to be known, otherwise he would have conformed a little to what others were doing (including other sages-note the melodrama with the Hindu priest who hates Buddha). Moderation is a noble idea and Buddha should be admired for promoting it, but (this in reference to the film) he must not allow others to call him a “god-man” while declaring himself an agnostic, nor should he be so immoderately spiritual. But perhaps that is an inherent problem with individualism and the Axial Age “philosophy” that go along with it. It is said that the followers of Epicurus (who also invented nothing, but unlike Buddha preached absolute nonsense), who did not care for traditional worship or believe the Gods influenced life, erected a shrine for him.
Confucius, 2010—set in Eastern China around 500 BCE
Visual: Quite satisfactory and noble
Verbal: The script was somewhat Western in its brevity, but still there is some complexity and room for analysis between the lines.
Portrayal: Confucius reminds me very much of Buddha in his individualism and egotism, but at least he seems to care for tradition and other people. He weeps for one of his scholars who died trying to save texts, but at the end of the film he is shown surrounded by thousands of copies of his texts, directing one of his students to send copies to such and such a prince. I am not sure whether his humanization rather than deification is something the Chinese state would prefer, but in any case there isn’t much to deify about him, when all is studied historically. I know that he is a folk Hero in China, which I respect as far as local tradition and ancestral worship is concerned, but I question that one should go beyond. In the Analects, he alleges that Tian (Heaven) spoke to him, but not in words, and I don’t see how this is different from what any traditional Chinese shaman would experience. But Confucius’ concentration on Tian, the transcendent supreme Deity or Spirit, parallels his high-flown spirituality and ambition in the film. He is in the company of kings and nobles, and there are hints of Chinese unification and imperialism in his thought, or at least this is what the film depicts. The character of Confucius does not seem to fit his time at all, but fits the modern age quite well, which annoys me, although it isn’t his fault alone. The nobles had their share of wrongdoing in an unstable period and Confucius reminded people of some old traditions such as filial piety. His exhortation against the human sacrifice of retainers was also noble, but there was no need for the violent depiction to prove the point.
Thematic/Moral: Transcendence, avoidance of temptation (we see another courtesan, but at least Confucius doesn’t disrespect his wife), asceticism, self-righteousness, and other Axial Age pomp as before. I can’t help the criticism! I wish Buddha and Confucius weren’t such individualists who constantly subverted their own humility and thus weakened their lessons!