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Merton - A Film Biography
Merton - A Film Biography
Actor: Alexander Scourby
Director: Paul Wilkes;Audrey Glynn
Genres: Drama, Special Interests, Documentary
NR     2004     0hr 57min

In his lifetime, Thomas Merton was hailed as a prophet and censured for his outspoken social criticism. For nearly 27 years he was a monk of the austere Trappist order, where he became an eloquent spiritual writer and myst...  more »


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Movie Details

Actor: Alexander Scourby
Director: Paul Wilkes;Audrey Glynn
Genres: Drama, Special Interests, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Religion, Religion & Spirituality, Documentary
Studio: First Run Features
Format: DVD - Color - Closed-captioned
DVD Release Date: 08/24/2004
Release Year: 2004
Run Time: 0hr 57min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 4
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Cult of the Personality - not what Merton would have wanted
Dr. R. S. Kermeen | CARDIFF., South Glamorgan, Great Britain | 12/04/2005
(2 out of 5 stars)

"It is difficult to know where DVDs such as this one fit into the spectrum of DVD viewing. The much-lauded "Seven Storey Mountain" so favourably mentioned in this DVD was condemned and disowned by Merton himself as a youthful extravagance! No "if you want to know me, then read my book" here! Some of the interviews with the people who knew him were interesting in a passing way, but none of those interviewed really got to the heart of the man's spiritual insights. Such interviews seem to follow a well-worn style! I found the proceedings of the "Merton Society" horrifyingly adulatory and mawkish; I think Merton himself would have been equally horrified at the talk of canonising him. Nowhere in all the material presented on this DVD was there any mention of Merton's central tenets of faith - was he Christological? Marian? Mystic? Politician? What was his relationship with the authoritarian magesterium of the church? Was he a rebel? Or submissive to rule? Or doomed to exist in awkward and uneasy tension with authority?

Also - and this mystifies me greatly - how was a Cistercian of an Order of Strict Observance allowed to wander far and wide from his monastery and live the life of a world-famous author, poet and policital commentator? I thought that the whole raison d'etre of a monk was that he commits himself to "this place, in this community, under this abbot, under this rule" or is that view just too old-fashioned in a post-conciliar church? Neither do I see from this DVD an explanation of just how living a cenobitic lifestyle within the community affected Merton's life one iota - he may as well have been living in downtown San Francisco and writing his articles in Starbuck's over endless cappuccinos. From this DVD, I suspect Merton was more than a little tongue-in-cheek about the whole monastic business, and there are elements of his using the monastic life as a backdrop for the living-out of a stageplay written in his head in early youth. This may seem a little harsh to those who knew him, but remember, I am not commenting on Merton's life, but on the impression given by this DVD.

Ultimately this is where such a narrative fails - it is too compact, and does not delve deeply enough into the subject's self-consciousness, as lived within the spiritual life lived out as a dialogue between him and God. There must surely be "tough" interviews in existence, in which Merton was forced to defend his chosen way of life. Such would have been far more illuminating! Alas, they were not included, and their absence made the DVD far less valuable than it could have been."
Light treatment of a complex life
Kevin Clothier | Los Angeles, Ca. | 01/09/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This documentary gives an important albeit superficial account into the spiritual development of a man who is arguably the most influnential Catholic figure of the twentieth century. Its structure is conventional as might be expected. However, for those who have followed the life and times of Father Merton it supplies important visual images of Merton, his friends, peers, and, perhaps most interesting,the hermatige of Gethsemene and its surroundings within which he spent a large portion of his life. Missing is mention of many of his most important correspondences such as his relationship with D.T.Suzuki.
Still the footage of Merton giving his final thoughts to a group of fellow contemplatives and monks just hours before his death is well worth the price of the DVD"
The Enigma Speaks!
D. Michael Sanford | 06/03/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)

"After waiting for several weeks for this DVD, I wan't disapointed at the least. I have read all of Merton's books, most of which (except for his journals) I will have to read again (and again) in order to take in their full meaning. The DVD of his life is well done. The one thing that the DVD illustrated that I didn't gleen from the wriitings of Fr. Louis was the secular problems with his writings within the Church in particular and society in general. I know of his anti-war stance during the sixties, and didn't know that many anti war sympathizers where friends with him, e.g. Joan Boaz. I never agreed with his courtings of Zen although the Dali Lama is a wonderful person, Zen is not Christian Mysticism.

All in all, the DVD is a wonderful, although short, introduction to Fr. Loius and it is great to see all of his literary agents in person and to see Fr. Louis actually speak!"
"Christianity rebels against the alienated life..."
Kerry Walters | Lewisburg, PA USA | 07/03/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)

"So said Thomas Merton in the last talk he ever gave, the famous Bangkok lecture delivered the morning of his death. The talk didn't go over very well. Some thought that Merton had drawn too intimate a comparison between monasticism and Marxism; others felt that his closing insistence that "from now on, everyone must stand on his own feet" was too harsh a criticism of religious institutionalism.

The ambivalence that greeted Merton's speech was something he'd gotten used to during his life, and director and writer Paul Wilkes does a good job in a short amount of time of sketching that life in "Merton: A Film Biography." Merton's confused childhood and youth, his conversion and entry into Gethsemane monastery, his early penetrating but sometimes frustratingly orthodox spiritual writings, his later realization that the contemplative life was inseparable from social and moral responsibility and his consequent advocacy of nonviolence, civil rights, disarmament, and the end of the Viet Nam conflict, his immersion in eastern spirituality; his own personal battles to integrate contemplation and activism, as well as to reconcile his deep need for community and his deeper need for solitude: at each stage of his spiritual journey, Merton surprised people, inspired those who were looking for their own path, and saddened and even infuriated those who thought he was betraying theirs.

In everything he did and wrote, though, he was rebelling against the alienated life. In one of his earliest books, he wrote that "we're at liberty to be real or unreal; but we can't make the choiced with impunity. Choices have consequences," and this is very much in the spirit of his final words about alienation. One of the forms of alienation that he personally fought against was his own fame, as the film makes clear. He intensely desired "not to be turned into a Catholic myth."

Other reviewers have criticized the film for what they see as its simplistic handling of a complex subject. While I appreciate their concerns, they seem to me to miss the fact that Wilkes' "Merton" intends to be an overview rather than an exhaustive study. I think it succeeds in that admirably. The photographs are intriguing, it's fantastic to see clips of Merton's final lecture, and the people interviewed--for example, Jim Forest, Robert Lax, John Eudes Bamberger, Robert Giroux, Naomi Burton Stone (Merton's agent), James Laughlin (Merton's New Directions publisher), Ernesto Cardenal, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh--all shed light on his work and personality.

For newcomers to Merton, this is a good introduction. For those who've read and loved Merton for years, this is an opportunity to see some pictures of an old friend and to hear his pals share stories about him. He truly did change the face of monasticism and spirituality. Like his Buddhist fellow-monk Thich Nhat Hanh, he helped all of us realize that social responsibility wasn't antithetical to contemplation. Social responsibility, if entered into properly, IS a form of contemplation."