Appropriate to the Buddhist traditions it respectfully observes, Nati Baratz’s documentary Unmistaken Child is more meditation than exposé; it pokes into the rituals surrounding a reincarnated Tibetan master without ever calling them into question. Any skepticism must come from viewers, who might wonder how, say, the ashes on the master’s cremation pyre could reveal the location of his reincarnated self, or what it means to take a toddler away from his family so he might fulfill a higher spiritual purpose. But Baratz’s refusal to ask questions doesn’t mean he lacks curiosity, either, and on balance, the film gains from aligning itself with the Buddhist perspective and observing the fascinatingly detailed process of finding and confirming the “unmistaken child.”
Baratz is fortunate to have a guide as quietly charismatic and sympathetic as Tenzin Zopa, a 28-year-old charged with carrying out this spiritual mission. From age 7, Tenzin served the revered Tibetan master Lama Konchog in isolation until Konchog died at 84, leaving Tenzin alone and grieving for a man who was in every way the center of his life. In fact, Tenzin has to overcome a serious reluctance to pursue the reincarnated Konchog, and it’s clear from the start that his loss burdens the search considerably. Traveling by mule, by foot, and even by helicopter, Tenzin navigates the vague soothsaying of Buddhist elders and local villagers to pinpoint the 1-year-old who houses the soul of his spiritual father.
Unmistaken Child is as much about Tenzin’s journey into self-reliance and manhood as it is about the mysteries of reincarnation, and his metamorphosis from reluctant hero to sturdy advocate for the chosen boy guides the film to the other side of the grieving process. Tenzin’s patient conversation with the boy’s parents about taking him away is the film’s emotional centerpiece, and he handles it with an equal understanding of the parents’ painful sacrifice and their spiritual obligation. Baratz’s apparent willingness to accept everything at face value papers over some of the more troubling aspects of Tenzin’s mission, but Unmistaken Child allows the mysteries of the process to be preserved without judgment.