Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Encounter With Simone Weil

AN ENCOUNTER WITH SIMONE WEIL               B+                       
USA  Italy  Sweden  (85 mi)  2010  d:  Julia Haslett                  Official site

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.                  —Simone Weil

This is perhaps the quietest film you’ll see all year, as it’s intentionally made with such low volume that it actually forces the viewer to listen more intently to what is a profoundly sad but deeply moving experience, an introduction into the life of a prolific writer, teacher, social activist and French philosopher, Simone Weil, a woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times,” who died at age 34 while trying to help liberate France from the Nazi’s during World War II.  Most likely little known except for college theology students, where she might be heralded as something of a rebel in Catholic circles, and perhaps a mystic by others.  Her obscurity is part of the beauty of this film, as the entire tone of the film is literary and quietly respectful, where the audience can expect to engage with the mind of what is likely a previously unknown historical figure, where her life story parallels that of the person telling the story, the filmmaker Julia Haslett, who also writes, edits, narrates, and produces her first film.  Early on we discover the narrator was confounded at a young age when her father committed suicide when she was just 17, where she felt a terrible responsibility for his loss, also her brother’s life-long mental health issues, plagued by the torment of unending headaches.  “My father's death taught me that if I don't pay attention, someone might die.”  But her outlook changed when she ran across a quote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” which she eventually attributed to Simone Weil.  These few words seemed to answer what was missing in her own personal turmoil with her family’s suffering, urging her, literally, to become more empathetic and a better listener, where sometimes just being present offers a kind of hope that would otherwise be missing if she weren’t there.  Learning more about Weil, she discovered a near saintly life, one zealously dedicated to improving the human condition, exhibiting a near incomprehensible compassion for the suffering of others, where she similarly led such an austere and frugal existence, all of which she felt was necessary in order to truly understand the needs of others.  

Weil grew up a Marxist Jew from the 30’s, a teacher who frowned upon the use of textbooks, preferring to translate the texts herself from the original ancient Greek, Latin, German and English, quitting her job once she began to idealize the automation of the working class, where machinery and assembly lines increased productivity and maximized human potential, taking a job working the line in a Renault car factory in France, thinking this would enlighten her understanding of working class consciousness.  However, she was forced to conclude that rather than incite the proletariat to revolution, oppressive working conditions instead drove workers into submission, creating a working force of capitulating slaves.  Weil eventually renounced Marxism and Communism and became a pacifist, yet also started leaning toward the transcension of religious faith, becoming a devout follower of the Catholic church, visiting the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes in France, yet still joined the fight against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, believing freedom empowered people against oppressive forces, but she accidentally injured herself early in the campaign.  When Fascism spread across Europe, her Jewish family had to flee to the safety of United States when Hitler occupied the nation, but Weil returned to London to help organize the French resistance.  During the First World War, she refused to eat sugar at age 6, as soldiers had to go without, and during the Second World War she would not heat her home so she could experience the cold that soldiers suffered while sleeping on the battlefield, while also refusing to eat anything more than minimal war rations, attempting to subsist on onions and tomatoes, even after contracting tuberculosis, eventually perishing from malnutrition, suggesting extreme fatalism in her beliefs.  Her approach to human goodness resembles that of the country priest in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de ca... (1951), who tried to subsist on a diet of stale bread and wine, continually struggling against the weakness of his own human limitations, where both seem inclined to ask the moral question posed by this film:  “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?”  Weil and the priest associate God’s love in their own actions, which are not so much moral choices as human necessities, believing faith is passed to others in the highly committed way we choose to lead our lives. 

Haslett not only respects the social commitment of Weil, but her literary acumen, which is explored throughout the film, though the filmmaker has difficulties accepting a religious conversion, not being religious herself.  However she expressed her admiration for Susan Sontag, who unfortunately died before the filmmaker could meet her, herself a professor of philosophy and theology, in a 1963 book review, Simone Weil by Susan Sontag | The New York Review of Books, “such writers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Genet—and Simone Weil—have their authority with us because of their air of unhealthiness. Their unhealthiness is their soundness, and is what carries conviction.”  When De Gaulle heard about Weil’s proposal to send nurses to the front lines along with the soldiers, believing they could develop a form of shared mental communion, bordering on spirituality, he considered her a “madwoman.”  Sontag acknowledges as much, where Weil’s insistence upon self-denial and “her contempt for pleasure and for happiness” would not be an example for anyone else to emulate (as her family in France readily acknowledges), where her martyrdom is what places her outside all human understanding, much like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where the unnatural endurance of so much pain and suffering is Christ-like, continually bearing the sins of others.  Lest anyone think this film is an excursion into the formulation of religious doctrine, it’s not, but it carefully takes us through Weil’s own personal transformation and the impact her life had on the development of a human conscious, as the director evolves in her own life through her intimate understanding of Weil.  None of this feels like a documentary, more like a personal revelation, where the tenderness exhibited is reverential, yet the intensity displayed in the director’s need to know and understand through Weil is startling, exhibiting an experimental, personal essay style approach, not through any inventive camera techniques or montages, but simply through a thoughtful invocation of her language.  Haslett uses a look-alike actress to assume the part of Weil and asks questions she might have wanted to ask, but this simulation all feels like part of the director’s imagination.  When most of the leftists of the era were toying with atheism, Weil embraced religious views of transcendance, bordering on a kind of mysticism, perhaps similar to that of Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, where ascending above the misery and suffering imposed by war was the only option.    

Recommended Reading:
Waiting for God, a collection of letters and essays that reveal Weil's spiritual autobiography, and her essay The Love of God and Affliction

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