– A Film Biography
C Sound: C Extras: B- Film: B-
the most wonderful and most heinous acts have been committed in the name of
religion. Although prejudicial thoughts
may inhibit one to recognize it, the fundamental precepts of every major
religion extol the value of humanity, peace, and tolerance. Because so many bastardize religion to serve
their own nefarious ends, it is always important to celebrate those who
practiced religion the way their founders intended. Arguably one of the most important religious figures in the
Twentieth Century, Thomas Merton epitomized the essence of goodness and
societal benefit. Paul Wilkes’ film, Merton: A Film Biography, is a noble
effort in capturing the complexity and conviction of Merton’s legacy.
biography opens with a clip from Merton’s only filmed speech at a Red Cross
convention in Bangkok. Ironically, the
only filmed image was shot the day he died (I could not help but think of
Attenbourgh’s Gandhi, in both
editing and content). Wilkes begins
with the early history of Merton, from his tumultuous childhood to his years in
college. Merton was born in France,
near the Spanish border, to two artists.
At the age of 6, Merton lost his mother. To deal with this tragedy, he became increasingly
introspective. Busy with his own art,
Merton’s father provided relatively little comfort for the motherless child.
However, Merton did not escape childhood without further misfortune-his father passed
away when Merton was only 15. Orphaned,
Merton continued his education, becoming quite the reader and writer, with
increasing interest in matters of the spirit.
the path of temptation proved overwhelming for Merton during his college years
at Cambridge. A frequent partier, drinker,
and womanizer, Merton was well known in various social circles. Rumors of his indulgences reached his
Grandfather in the United States, who forced him to return stateside after
Merton left an extra gift for one of his female attendants. Once in the United States, Merton remained
there for the next few decades, being educated at Columbia and living as a
Trappist Monk at the austere Gethsemani Monastery. Although Merton dedicated his life to religious contemplation,
his particular brand of spirituality often set him at odds with the Catholic
believed strongly in social justice, nuclear disarmament, and racial equality.
His essays, prose, and poetry reflected those social commitments, and were
readily adopted the activists of the 1950s and 60s. Merton’s social commitments were first made widely public in his
autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain,
which sold well over 600,000 copies, and was well accepted by the young and old
alike. Merton’s influence resonated
throughout the Church and the American political scene. Also, before his death, Merton became
increasingly interested in Eastern religions, which later motivated him to
visit Tibet, India, and Thailand.
biography does a solid job of capturing Merton’s reach by interviewing Joan
Baez, the Dalai Lama, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as his students and many
members of the Catholic Church. The
interviews are nice monologues placing Merton in context with larger political
struggles. Likewise, the film’s
narrators, one a traditional narrator (Alexander Scourby), the other (Gregory
Abels) reading from Merton’s autobiography, capture the essence of Merton while
seamlessly constructing a rather compelling biographical narrative. Unfortunately, the film does little to
explore further the conditions of his death; not that the filmmakers should
dwell on the death of such a vibrant individual, but the circumstances
surrounding his death do warrant further inspection, if at least to highlight
some “meaning” to it. Merton died of
electrocution while bathing, right after he gave a controversial speech at the
Red Cross meeting in Bangkok. The film
never gives name to the conditions of his death (“accident”?), so I am waiting
for the Olive Stone directed biopic starring Ed Harris as Thomas Merton.
itself, 1.33 x 1 full-frame, is mostly from old footage; consequently, the
images are not stunning. The 2.0 Dolby
Stereo is also underdeveloped, but again the source material puts obvious
restrictions on the current format.
However, what the film lacks in audio-visual quality, it more than makes
up for in content. The only real
special feature is also very content based; an hour long series of clips from
lectures and roundtables from important religious and cultural figures that discuss
the legacy of Thomas Merton. So, if you
find the biography itself interesting, you should the numerous anecdotes from
old monks also quite engaging.
people should learn about Thomas Merton, because we could really use more of
- Ron Von Burg