April 20, 2018

The way of love in a beautiful forest

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
Summer in the Forest. Credit: 2018 R2W Films
Summer in the Forest. Credit: 2018 R2W Films

About two hours ago, after 33 days of preparation, my wife and I completed a consecration to Divine Mercy.
 
We read “33 Days to Merciful Love:  A Do-It-Yourself Retreat in Preparation for Consecration to Divine Mercy” by Fr. Michael Gaitley.  As part of this retreat, we read about St. Therese and her Little Way.  The long and short, for those not in the know about Therese, is that she often focused on her “littleness.”  She wrote about how much she lacked the ability to do great things for Christ because her life just seemed so small at times.  Those around her challenged her, and built her into the saint we know and love today.  But she had a simultaneous joy and frustration with her desire to love Christ with her whole soul.

 The story of Jean Vanier in “Summer in the Forest” kind of reminds me of the love that Therese had.  It is the story of a man who demonstrates his sainthood through the simple act of loving absolutely.

“Summer in the Forest” is a quiet documentary.  It isn’t bombastic. It doesn’t really follow a traditional narrative. Rather, it is a look at L’Arche from the view of its founder, Jean Vanier, a Canadian ex-naval officer.  It isn’t the story of him prepping a massive expansion.  It isn’t the story of his retirement party.  It is just his life involved with L’Arche, an organization focused on providing care to the mentally handicapped.  As such, the movie leans heavily into an understanding that empathy is the greatest trait that a person can have in this line of work and it asks its viewers to develop a healthy dose of that empathy as well.  

Without a traditional narrative, the story is simply about existence and the joys a new day can bring. Part of me absolutely loves this. “Summer in the Forest” isn’t the first documentary to take this approach to filmmaking. I think of Cinema Verite documentaries, like the works of the brothers Maysles. Those movies are absolutely fabulous, but don’t have a formal structure when it comes to storytelling. But the Maysles don’t really ask for much in terms of changing hearts. When I look at Big Edie and Little Edie in “Gray Gardens”, it is simply a look into a world that is not my own. “Summer in the Forest” presents a different life than mine, but it asks me to move my perspective and to change my heart in the process. “Summer” lets me know that there are people out there doing amazing work and receiving so much joy from it in the process.

I find so fascinating the way technology has changed how we tell our stories. As we watched, my wife kept commenting on how she wants to go visit Trosty-Breuil, because it looks completely stunning all of the time. Director Randall Wright made every shot sing with his use of drone technology and high-def cameras. This seems like it is a small thing, but one of the central themes in the film is that the marginalized of society have been hidden away in dark places until recent history. The residents of Le Val Fleuri are part of a gorgeous landscape.  Those amazing high-def shots give the impression that these people are living in a paradise in France. It speaks the story. That’s the point.

(Of course, my wife, being an amazing woman and a better person than I am, also would be moved to help in any way that she could.)

There is definitely a budget for this movie, and it is used wisely. It is used on an understated score and plane tickets. It’s used in the editing that made a tight hour-and-forty-seven-minute movie. It is in making a polished film that lets the audience simply exist in nature with these people and gives them the opportunity to get to know them in a haven that they call home.

There are a few missteps along the way, but these rarely detract from the film as a whole. There is a shift in location very late in the movie that isn’t explained at all.  It is fascinating, and the shift needed to be part of the film, but there needed to be a little explanation beforehand that wasn’t really provided.  

Similarly, Wright chose to give the perspective of a whole community rather than focusing on a select few individuals and their stories. Each person we meet seems to have a wealth of story behind them.

David, my favorite resident, only gets a few fun moments, but I really didn’t get to know much about him otherwise. The movie consistently flashes to Patrick, but little is revealed about his personal life. The movie also focuses on an engagement between two of the residents; it is heartwarming, but I also can’t say that I know much of their relationship outside of the fact that it exists.  In the end, these choices are not the worst that the director could have made, all-in-all because it left me wanting to know more about them. But there were times that I was left less than fulfilled.

I kept thinking of Therese’s Little Way while watching this. Vanier is a saint who doesn’t see himself as a saint. Rather, he does what he does out of love. No one seems to be pushing him. He doesn’t see what he does as a burden. But the reason that we see him as a holy man is because every choice he makes in his community is one based on the love. His narration throughout the film gives us insight into his great thoughts about humanity, but ultimately what sells this movie is the look on this old man’s face when he sees the people he views as friends throughout the movie.

There were so many moments where I also compared him to St. Teresa of Calcutta. While her actions that were publicized were phenomenal, and it is impressive that she maintained a ministry so late in life, the really impressive element comes from knowing that both St. Theresa and Jean Vanier committed to hard ministry for most of their lives. Vanier looks like someone should get him a chair to sit down, but he speaks like a man in his thirties or forties.  He never thinks about himself, or pats himself on the back, but people light up when he hobbles into a room. There is something fundamentally wonderful about this guy. I kind of love him.

“Summer in the Forest” isn’t the perfect documentary, but it is inspiring. The filmmakers found a part of the world that is functioning the way it is supposed to, and allowed us to peek into this world. Perhaps the movie gives the viewer an idealized version of the daily lives of the residents, but that’s what the story is about. I’m sure that there are bad days, but life is sometimes just about the good days and what joy we can bring into the world.  

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.