To characterize a film as “feel-good” is usually to dismiss it as butter for the brain—slick, smooth, eminently palatable but probably better in limited servings. “Summer in the Forest,” which is a fittingly unorthodox documentary, as well as the Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier’s resume for sainthood, is a feel-good film in the sense that it reaffirms one’s faith in humanity and maybe even in what Vanier contends is a common human instinct for peace and universal justice—an instinct, Vanier concedes, that is too often “very, very quiet.”
Few know that quietude better than the inhabitants of Val Fleuri, a country house northwest of Paris, in the village of Trosly-Breuil, where Vanier founded L’Arche—an organization that now has 151 facilities in 30-odd countries, community homes for the people formerly dismissed as idiots and relegated to insane asylums or, at least, what might charitably be called uncharitable institutions. The film, in its way, does what Vanier did—honors its subjects’ humanity, explores their uniqueness and changes the way we, the so-called normal ones, see them. Director Randall Wright avails himself of Vanier’s voice for what narration exists, and its gentleness is certainly an asset to the movie. So is the spiritual steel behind the voice, which gives a solid indication of how it all happened.
A feel-good film that actually reaffirms one’s faith in humanity.
“Summer in the Forest” provides, obliquely, a slim biography of Vanier himself—he is Canadian, 89 years old and served as an officer on a British destroyer during World War II. He knows the human capacity for horror and for love. But the film is more about the inhabitants of Val Fleuri, and in making it Wright dispenses with many of the formal constraints that documentary makers so often impose upon themselves. There is no pretending to either a participatory chumminess or a fly-on-the-wall observational invisibility—it’s obvious that scenes were set up and shot from different angles; they know it, we know it. No one cares; the filmmakers stay out of the way, but their presence is implied. Regardless of it all, the characters are so uninhibited and candid they achieve, without effort, a naturalism that would be the envy of any method actor.
There are no diagnoses—some of the individuals’ personal histories come out casually, in the observation of their day-to-day conversations or visits to the doctor or, in Michel Petit’s case, a trip to a nearby memorial to the last 1,250 deportees to Buchenwald who left on the local train in 1944. Michel’s observations about this and about Catholics’ relationships to Jews show a capable mind at work; like most of the subjects in the film, he is disabled in some respects, certainly not in others.
Characters are defined not solely by their challenges but by their personalities.
Disabled is not even a word that gets used in the film. Vanier uses “disabilities” once; a mother in Palestine uses it several times to describe her daughter’s condition. (There is a side trip to a L’Arche home in Bethlehem.) But otherwise, characters are defined not solely by their challenges but by their personalities, including the inevitable quirks therein: Patrick, for instance, who is a taciturn chain-smoking loner who suggests Samuel Beckett; or David, a diminutive fan of “Texas Walker” (a.k.a. the Chuck Norris series “Walker, Texas Ranger”). David’s cowboy fantasies play out to a rather comical song called “The Sheriff,” sung by Paul Jones, who seems to be channeling both Frankie Laine and Johnny Cash.
As funny as the song is, it is more odd and out of sync with the poetic tone of most of the film. There are other examples, too, of sonic excess: When Michel leaves the Holocaust monument, we hear the sound of a train engine, though no train is in sight; when a patient named Sebastian visits the doctor, we hear a magic-realist heartbeat through her stethoscope; when that doctor is bicycling to her visit with Sebastian (she is never identified), the music that intrudes into the movie suggests a ’50s musical starring Leslie Caron. It is refreshing, in its way, but makes no stylistic sense.
Alas, there is generally too much music in a movie whose spareness is an asset and where unaddressed aspects of life in Trosly-Breuil are nevertheless articulated very well, through the innocence and openness of Val Fleuri’s habitantes. As observed by Vanier—whose books (Becoming Human, From Brokenness to Community) are probably well known to many America readers—“The weak and the foolish have been chosen to confound the powerful.” There are few more meek, he might say, or blessed than the cast of “Summer in the Forest.”