An Encounter with Simone Weil
Julia Haslett, USA, 2010, 85 mins
Thursday May 10 | 3:45 PM | Pacific Cinémathèque
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"After losing her father to suicide when she was 17 and subsequently witnessing her brother’s depression, filmmaker Julia Haslett develops a curiosity for French writer Simone Weil (1909 – 1943). Weil’s cause of death at age 34, listed as self-imposed starvation at the height of World War II, remains as controversial as her political writings today. Haslett is struck by this line written by Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” It resonates deeply with her and becomes a catalyst for her actions. With 24-hour news reporting on the worsening political and economic conditions of millions around the world Haslett’s curiosity soon turns into a life-changing obsession. She journeys out to the places that Weil lived and worked, searches out key people in Weil’s life and even conjures up an actress to play Weil’s alter ego. Haslett pieces together a picture of who Weil was and the reasons that led to Weil’s loss of faith in revolutionary politics and, ultimately, in life itself. As her brother’s depression worsens, Haslett’s search becomes even more urgent. This critically acclaimed film melds contemporary and historical references, the personal and the universal, into an astonishing story about what it means to bear witness to suffering, both near and far." smiley films
"An Encounter with Simone Weil tells the story of French philosopher, activist, and mystic, Simone Weil (1909-1943) -- a woman Albert Camus described as "the only great spirit of our time." On her quest to understand Simone Weil, filmmaker Julia Haslett confronts profound questions of moral responsibility both within her own family and the larger world. From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to anti-war protests in Washington DC, from intimate exchanges between the filmmaker and her older brother, who struggles with mental illness, to captivating interviews with people who knew Simone Weil, the film takes us on an unforgettable journey into the heart of what it means to be a compassionate human being." linestreet.net
Weil's wikipedia entry provides a sense of her spiritual life:
"Weil was born into a secular household and raised in "complete agnosticism". As a teenager she considered the existence of God for herself and decided nothing could be known either way. In her Spiritual Autobiography however Weil records that she always had a Christian outlook, taking to heart the idea of loving one's neighbour from her earliest childhood. Weil became attracted to the Christian faith from 1935, the first of three pivotal experiences for her being when she was moved by the beauty of villagers singing hymns during an outdoor service that she stumbled across during a holiday to Portugal.
While in Assisi in the spring of 1937, she experienced a religious ecstasy in the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli—the same church in which Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed. She was led to pray for the first time in her life as Cunningham (2004: p. 118) relates: "Below the town is the beautiful church and convent of San Damiano where Saint Clare once lived. Near that spot is the place purported to be where Saint Francis composed the larger part of his Canticle of Brother Sun. Below the town in the valley is the ugliest church in the entire environs: the massive baroque basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, finished in the seventeenth century and rebuilt in the nineteenth century, which houses a rare treasure: a tiny Romanesque chapel that stood in the days of Saint Francis—the Little Portion where he would gather his brethren. It was in that tiny chapel that the great mystic Simone Weil first felt compelled to kneel down and pray."
She had another, more powerful, revelation a year later while reciting George Herbert's poem Love III, after which "Christ himself came down and took possession of me" and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual, while retaining their focus on social and political issues. She was attracted to Roman Catholicism, but declined to be baptized; preferring to remain outside due to "the love of those things that are outside Christianity". During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille, receiving spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. Around this time she met the French Catholic author Gustave Thibon, who later edited some of her work.
In 1942, she travelled to the United States with her family. Weil lived briefly in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. She is remembered to have attended daily Mass at Corpus Christi Church there, where the Columbia student and future Trappist monk Thomas Merton was later to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. Long believed not to have sought baptism, there is now evidence, including a claim from a priest who knew her, that she was baptized shortly before her death.