Summer in the Forest

 

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A memorable film which but for one serious misjudgment would be a masterpiece.

 
Summer in the Forest

  

Hiding behind a title that is both unrevealing and unmemorable is a film that is truly remarkable. It lasts for some 105 minutes and, if only it had opted for a running length of not more than 80 minutes, I might well have been acclaiming it as one of the year’s most outstanding films. That is so despite the fact that on paper it suggests a sympathetic venture likely to appeal but not one that would be expected to yield a masterpiece.

 

The purpose of Randall Wright’s film is to illustrate the work of L’Arche, an organisation that aids people with learning disabilities and now extends to as many as 149 communities in 37 countries. The key man behind it is the Canadian Jean Vanier, 87 years old at the time of filming. Vanier, a former naval officer, has made L’Arche the centre of his life bringing sympathy and understanding to those who might otherwise be in psychiatric institutions. Many of those helped in this way are now elderly and have lived out most of their lives in this helpful environment - of the eight or more specially featured one is still haunted by memories of the Second World War, another suffered head injuries in a car accident when very young and a third never recovered properly from a misguided spinal injection.

 

Jean Vanier is an extraordinary, loving man who believes that the wise and powerful of this world have much to learn from those who are weak and may appear foolish and he sees no difference between people of different races and religions. Summer in the Forest takes its cue from him and, rather than giving a detailed history of L’Arche, its growth and the way in which it functions, it shows the day-to-day existence of a number of its inhabitants. In addition we get some idea of Vanier’s own life story, but not so as to distract from the film’s main purpose. John Harle’s sensitive music score is never overused and the film, perfectly paced for its first 70 minutes or so, is extraordinarily expressive. It has a quiet, contemplative tone which reflects Vanier’s own compassionate concern and it illustrates how damaged lives have over time been transformed by making those cared for feel that they are loved and worthwhile.

 

No other film known to me has achieved this depth of positive feeling within its tonal quality, so it is a great shame that it goes on for much too long. Most of it takes place within the original L’Arche community in France but there is an unnecessary insertion late on of footage from another such in Bethlehem. One or two details from these late sequences should have been kept, but for far too much of the time nothing seen later on adds to what has already been communicated so touchingly. A film that would have been ideal for school viewing and also deserving of the widest possible distribution loses its impact steadily over its last third by having nothing further to say. But what has gone before could not be more special: concentrate on that part of it and one can only say that in the most profound way possible this is a beautiful film.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Jean Vanier and the residents of L'Arche.

 

Dir Randall Wright, Pro Richard Wilson and Randall Wright, Ph Patrick Duval, Ed Paul Binns, Music John Harle.

 

R2W Films/Rockhopper Productions/Filmwrights-PIPOCA.
107 mins. UK. 2016. Rel: 23 June 2017. Cert. PG.