Who would have thought that Martin Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama would be a model of efficiency? It took James Cameron 194 minutes to sink theTitanic — and, hell, it took Scorsese 178 minutes just to cover Las Vegas (in 1995’s Casino). But his elegy for a free Tibet takes in the years from 1937 to 1959 with not a moment to spare. Kundun is a luminous, meditative work that dissolves from moment to moment with the aplomb of an epic poem. It’s also, against all odds, the most astonishing film of 1997.

The man who made Mean Streets and Taxi Driver has been ensconced, enshrined, and nearly embalmed as the living master of classical American moviemaking. And if such stuff as Cape Fear and Casino has seemed at best creaky and at worst embarrassing compared to the man’s earlier work, then Kundun — his finest picture since Raging Bull — could hardly be a more radical departure. It recalls the solemnity of The Last Temptation of Christ and the introspection of The Age of Innocence. But Kundun is more magnificent than either of those films. Working in full-on expressionist mode, cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo), film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull), and composer Philip Glass (Koyaanisqatsi) manage to give bracing form to the ineffable and deliver history as a shimmering bolt to the heart.

In just 128 minutes, Scorsese depicts the boyhood and adolescence of Tenzin Gyatso (nee Lhamo Dhondrub), the fourteenth Dalai Lama — portrayed at various ages by four different actors. Discovered at the age of 2, the toddler (Tenzin Yeshi Paichang) is believed to be the next in a series of incarnations of the Buddha of Compassion — the spiritual and secular leader of the Tibetan people. (The monks test him by placing the previous Dalai Lama’s possessions in front of him alongside “decoys” and waiting to see which items he recognizes.) Seldom is the on-screen characterization of so young a child this complete. The young Dalai Lama is inquisitive, impetuous and more than a little pleased with himself. He also seems mildly baffled by the goings-on as he and his family are spirited away from their tiny home on the Chinese border to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where he will be trained in matters of religion, politics, and humility. As he grows older, certain political matters are kept from him (more than once he is told by his elders, “this is not for your eyes”) and others are revealed only gradually.

As he grows into adolescence, he has a screening room constructed, where he sits and soaks up the lessons of movies and newsreels — gifts from the West — and then pores over an old atlas, trying to figure out what’s happening in the world. In one scene, he springs silently to his feet at the image of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, accompanied by chilly narration; his dismay is wordless, but palpable.

Meanwhile, he is made gradually aware of the threat of the Communist Chinese. As a nation literally built on concepts of nonviolence, Tibet has an army of just 5,000 ill-equipped men; it is, however, strategically positioned to serve the Chinese well as a military stronghold. Once the Communists come to power in 1949, they assert their authority over China. When Tibet resists, the Chinese army invades. Ever hopeful that a peaceful resolution to the conflict may be found — even musing briefly on the similarities between Buddhism and socialism — the Dalai Lama (now a young adult, played with great tranquility by Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) travels to Peking to meet with Mao Zedong (Richard Lin), who instructs him cordially but coldly that “religion is poison.” And it’s here that the spiritual and secular leader of Tibet realizes what awaits his people.

Most crushing of all is his eventual realization that he must flee Tibet for the sanctuary of India — the Chinese send him a letter stating their intention to shell his palace in Lhasa in order to quash the mounting Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. It’s with this decision that Kundun accelerates into a breathless whirl of pure sound and vision. Scorsese brings a multitude of imagery to bear on Kundun’s journey into exile, the reeling emotional cynosure of his heretofore subdued tale. You may feel your eyes snap open wide. The sculpted, colored sands that make up an exquisite mandala are photographed over and over again in close-up, as stunning as the Himalayas themselves, before they’re swept away and poured into the water. Glass’s splendid score continues to tumble across the screen as narrative gives way to a purely cinematic poem. This story is shaped by history and politics, but it’s driven by inner forces, by oracles, dreams, and visions. It takes hold in a way that few films ever do; it immerses you in color and sound and drenches you with sorrow. In terms of form and technique, it’s leagues more exciting than anything else in American film this year.

Melissa Mathison wrote the screenplay with input from the Dalai Lama himself, who remains in exile and has reportedly given the project his blessing. It’s incisive and understated, and it’s hard to tell from the finished product just what the film must have looked like on paper. Reverent and spirited, it has the feeling of something molded and shaped by supple human hands. It’s also a very personal film that takes great risks and is most assuredly not for everybody. (Mainstream critical reception has been lukewarm.) Anything but talky, Kundun may well be the antithesis of the comfortable Hollywood epic.

For Kundun is just barely a “historical epic,” at least in the way the cinema usually considers those words. Call it a spiritual epic. And it’s also a story about growing up, seen entirely through the eyes of a holy man. (Kundun himself is just six years older than Scorsese, no stranger to religion himself, who must have felt an affinity with his tale.) At the base level, Kundun is a forceful evocation of the feelings that a boy has as he begins to learn about the cruelties of the world outside his own sphere, and of the sorrow he feels when he learns that he can’t put things right — all he can do, in this case, is persevere. In this tale, Scorsese finds the stuff of a film quite unlike any other. After so many movies about naked aggression, he’s made one that presupposes the existence of kindness, wondering at how long that gentle nature has endured in the face of chaos.