Nati Baratz's documentary opens with the 2001 funeral service of Nepalese Buddhist holy man Geshe Lama Konchog. Owing to the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, his young disciple Tenzin Zopa is immediately tasked to locate the late lama, who will have returned to earth in the form of a newborn--somewhere. What follows is a fascinating, often moving combination of quest narrative, spiritual detective story, and precocious coming-of-age tale.
Rookie director Baratz must have excellent karma, as exemplified by winding up with Zopa as his protagonist. Handsome, sweet, and passionate, the monk brings quiet vigor and humble dedication to his task; you can't help but root for him. It turns out that searching for a reincarnated lama in the 21st century involves a beguiling mix of ancient and new. Zopa commissions a distant astrologer to guide his steps then watches the resulting reading on videotape before setting off in his monk-red North Face parka to traipse through rural Nepal to look for a certain special toddler. (Though captured on digital video, the vertiginous Himalayan scenery makes for a breathtaking backdrop throughout.)
In a way, Unmistaken Child is a platonic love story. The lama had guided Zopa's life in every way since he was a child himself; a scene in which the monk breaks down during a visit to his late master's tumble-down former mountainside retreat will rip out hearts across all lines of belief. And now Zopa must locate his father figure/spiritual polestar/constant companion (and a soul venerated by millions) all over again. The movie's middle section largely consists of the monk walking endlessly from village to village to play with adorable Nepalese children, hold up the lama's rosary, and ask, "Is this yours?" Finally, he happens across a child who clutches the beads and refuses to give them back.
The final third documents the steps by which the child, chubby Tenzin Ngodrup, becomes officially recognized as the reincarnation of Lama Konchog and begins his life anew. The process and the attendant pomp receive ample attention, but what lingers afterward is the poignancy of a child's world utterly changing forever (from shaving his head to saying farewell to his parents) balanced against believers' joy over the lama's rediscovery. In one indelible shot, a camera pointed out the window of a motorcade catches what seems like miles of smiling well-wishers lining the road to the monastery. Unmistaken Child's search uncovers another rare and precious thing: a well-earned happy ending.