You might think, from watching *Seven Years In Tibet*, that Heinrich Harrer disliked Nazis as much as he disliked his pregnant wife. You might think that young Heinrich was escaping not only impending fatherhood, but the relentless march of Hitler's armies as well, as he boarded a train bound for Tibet. As Harrer heroically scales the treacherous heights of Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas, it is abundantly clear that he is an egotistical, heartless and cruel bully, but it is never mentioned that he was also in Hitler's SS, and one of the Fuhrer's Aryan elite.
That inconvenient little truth came out while *Seven Years In Tibet* was being filmed, so it is not altogether surprising that this movie, based on Harrer's memoir, pretty much glosses over the fact, with naught but a vague reference to an unenlightened youth.
Instead, *Seven Years In Tibet* depicts Harrer (Brad Pitt) as a troubled, headstrong young man who eventually stumbles across the path to enlightenment with a little help from his friends. One of those friends just happens to be His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, who was but a boy when Harrer and fellow mountaineer Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) found their way to the holy city of Lhasa. Goodbye Hitler, hello Dalai!
Unfortunately, Harrer doesn't get to Lhasa until about an hour and a half into the movie, and once he's on the path to true enlightenment, he takes a sharp detour. Before that, however, there's a lot of boilerplate mountain climbing drama as he attempts to scale Nanga Parbat. Then he is imprisoned in a British POW camp. After escaping that boring and uneventful place, he begins an arduous journey across the Himalayas, braving harsh weather and starvation. After reuniting with Aufschnaiter, he slowly makes his way to Tibet, where the Tibetans rightly perceive him to be a devil and attempt to shoo him out of the country. Being an arrogant Aryan, he is not easily shooed. Mind you, Harrer's journey thus far is merely a physical one involving endless climbing and trekking and thieving, during which little changes but the seasons and the shabbiness of the mountaineers' clothing. The spiritual journey, such as it is, occupies the hurried final hour of *Seven Years In Tibet*, during which Harrer experiences a change of what little heart he apparently possesses, thanks to the wise guidance of Kundun, the boy Dalai Lama.
Pitt's Harrer is a callow fellow, and his purported enlightenment isn't especially deep or convincing. That isn't just because Pitt is not an especially deep or convincing actor, although once again, he belabors a feeble accent, this time a vaguely Austrian one that is no better than the Irish brogue he mangled in *The Devil's Own*. Pitt looks the part of the arrogant Aryan at the start of *Seven Years*, but after a few years in a POW camp, and a few more in the wilderness, he begins to look just like Brad Pitt the scruffy, unwashed rebel movie star.
Thewlis fares far better as Aufschnaiter, a character who starts out more generous of spirit and so must travel a shorter spiritual path, thus making a more convincing go of it. Thewlis' Aufschnaiter, who eventually marries a Tibetan woman and embraces Tibetan culture and custom, is a quieter character who changes in deeply spiritual yet perceptible ways -- his story is far more intriguing than Harrer's, even without the Dalai Lama's presence.
Jamyang Wangchuk is wonderfully charming as the charismatic boy leader of Tibet who craves information about the larger world. He exudes gentle spirituality, childish playfulness and wisdom beyond his years in the role, and exhibits far more maturity as an actor than Pitt has managed to pull off.
The central problem of Seven Years is the point of view. Without the Dalai Lama, there's nothing very compelling or remarkable about the unlikable Harrer's life, and the His Holiness is too small a part of the movie, as scripted by Becky Johnston. Tibet's pacifist culture, guided at all times by their devout Buddhism, is not illuminated any more by being filtered through the consciousness of an Aryan pretty boy. Neither is the tragic tale of Tibet's violent occupation by China -- the subject is worthy of a movie, but it need not be seen through Western eyes, as it is here, to be appreciated. Harrer's outrage over the annexation rings a bit false, even when he confesses his own shame in an elliptical reference to his own role in similar atrocities.
But Tibet isn't really the subject of *Seven Years In Tibet*. Like other movies about Westerners in exotic lands, the setting is largely irrelevant to the actual story, and that's especially true here. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud seems to model his film after the sort of explorer movies that were fashionable during Harrer's years in Tibet -- *Seven Year* even features that silly old device, nowadays used exclusively for comic effect: a map with dashed lines showing the path taken by an intrepid explorer. To be sure, *Seven Years* doesn't have the obvious racist overtones of those old jungle adventures, although an air of amused bemusement surrounds a scene in which Buddhist monks take great pains to safeguard earthworms.
Harrer may have helped usher the Dalai Lama into the modern world, but it is Kundun's role as Harrer's surrogate son that is central to this story. Adding a modern spin to the hoary old explorer's tale, Harrer is, at least according to his voiceover diary readings, wracked by guilt over abandoning his only child. Kundun shows him the way to a father-son reconciliation that is striking mostly for its utter lack of emotion. Like Harrer, *Seven Years In Tibet* just can't fake sensitivity, compassion or spiritual grace.