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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Political > Religion > Merton - A Film Biography

Merton – A Film Biography


Picture: C     Sound: C     Extras: B-     Film: B-



Some of 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.


The 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.


However, 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 Church.


Merton 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.


The 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. 


The film 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.


All told, people should learn about Thomas Merton, because we could really use more of him.



-   Ron Von Burg


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