Since I came to live in rural France over a decade ago, cinema has taken a back seat in my life. Yes, I could go every week and watch a Hollywood blockbuster dubbed into French. I could see the newish Star Wars movie with Mark Hamill’s voice over-dubbed with the sound of a French actor’s voice (these voice actors are stars in their own right here), his mouth flapping up and down in a totally different rhythm to the actual dialogue.
I could also go and see a recent French film, generally a love-tangled drama with plenty of female nudity and most certainly an age-inappropriate coupling of some middle-aged teacher and his nubile female student or some such scenario. Yes, I’m applying outmoded clichés and being uncharacteristically flippant, but I still generally choose not to go.
Instead, I study the listings endlessly and wait for that rare gem – an English language film with the original voices. There will be French subtitles but that’s okay; they’re necessary, of course, for the local French people to enjoy the film and I usually pick up a new word or two in French in the process so it’s win-win.
This week I saw with some excitement that a film called Voyage en pleine conscience (Walk with Me in English) would be shown in version originale. It was a documentary about a Buddhist monastic community near Bordeaux with a voice-over by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch and sounded interesting, to me anyway.
Before attending I read a little and found out that the monastery featured in the film was started by the Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh. I now know that he is a HUGE name in Buddhism in general and in mindfulness specifically. He ranks second only to the Dalai Lama among Buddhist leaders influential in the West. He is also the man who began the so-called ‘engaged Buddhism’, a movement that applies the insights from meditation practice and dharma teachings to situations of social, political, environmental, and economic suffering and injustice. Thich Nhat Hanh, now ninety-two years of age, was exiled from Vietnam in the sixties has resided since then in the monstery in France.
The film was shown in a small local cinema; I’ve been there once or twice before but it has always been largely empty for any film in version originale with an attendance of perhaps five or so people. On this particular evening however, a large group of people were standing in the car park exactly at the same time as I arrived, so many people in fact that it was difficult to drive into the carpark. I found out later that many of them were from the local yoga group. With them, ourselves and quite a steady stream of other cinema-goers, the salle was soon almost full, a startling attendance for a documentary film such as this.
When the film finally started after endless trailers for forthcoming showings, it started very, very slowly.
Close ups of people’s faces with eyes closed.
A group walking glacially slowly through a woodland.
A drop of rain hanging pendulously and silently from a branch.
And no background music.
Okay, I understand it’s a study of a community devoted to mindfulness where people do walk slowly and silently here, people prepare and eat food slowly and silently, and people meditate a lot… slowly and silently… so that’s what you’re going to see, of course.
The documentary was filmed over a three year period to be a fly-on-the-wall in the monastery and to capture their daily life. In this it is successful. It truly does give you an idea of the pace of life, the rhythm of their day and the priorities of the monks, nuns and other attendees in this monastery. One scene shows us new monks and nuns taking their vows and having their heads shaved – they give up all material possessions, they surrender the hair on their heads and they take a vow of chastity. We were shown them being told in very certain terms that going back on this oath would mean they were no longer be considered Buddhist monastics.
I either got used to the treacle-slowness of the film or the pace picked up a little, I’m not sure which, but I certainly found it more engaging as it neared the halfway point. Some of the monks and nuns went to New York, they attended some events to raise awareness of their philosophy and lifestyle and a few of them went to visit family, something they only get to do once every two years or so. There were a lot of tears and a long scene of a nun visiting her father in a care facility. This, for me, came across as rather patronising, the father crying a lot, pained by the fact that he seldom sees his daughter, and the woman trotting out platitudes to this poor old man. Not comfortable viewing at all for me and I still fail to see the point of this rather extended scene, but other viewers could well take a more positive view of it.
Some of the highlights of the films are the rare but beautiful voice-overs where Benedict Cumberbatch reads extracts from Thich Nhat Hanh’s diary. The throaty meditative voice and the poetic phrases over the visual backdrop of the monastery and its bucolic setting were stirring.
The film was relaxing, if you could surrender yourself to the pace. I found myself breathing deeply, as I would if someone tried my patience, and the end result was actually one similar to doing a ninety-minute meditation. In true Buddhist style, you have to set aside your expectations on watching this film, let go of any attachment to the outcome of those expectations, and simply surrender to the ‘now’ of the atmosphere of a, for the most part, beautifully filmed piece. Any other approach would be futile and you could well leave the cinema feeling frustrated and disappointed.
I’m no Buddhist, not yet anyway, so personally, I did leave feeling a little disappointed that we hadn’t learned more about Buddhism or about Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings of mindfulness. But that is clearly not what the directors set out to do. There is a wealth of books and resources for that, some of which I am dipping into already, so if the film’s aim was to pique interest, as well as giving a brief glimpse of life in a Buddhist monastery, then it was in many ways successful.