The Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh became renowned around the world as one of the leading teachers of his religion, but in 1966 in the middle of trying to end the Vietnam War through the tenets of peace, he was forced to flee his native land to travel to France. Once he was there, he started again and established Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat where he and his monastics, who gathered there from all over the world, could study and meditate over their beliefs and dedication to compassion as a method of living in a global society that could often be cruel, and generated great suffering.
When one of the spiritual leader's monks asked his documentary maker brother to make a film about this community, he was intrigued, and given he was trusted thanks to the family connection, he was offered unprecedented access to the village. But the reason he had been invited along was only partly to illustrate and advertise this way of life, as in the second half we realise directors Marc J. Francis and Max Pugh were also there to record the American tour of Thich Nhat Hanh, though even then there was the sense that he wanted the focus not to be on himself, but instead on his various students.
Therefore there is no sit down chat with the great man, and merely occasional insights into his mind, to the point that a blankness crept in that one would associate not with deep religious spirituality, more a cult-like mentality, not that there were any human rights violations occurring in Plum Village, it was very much a collection of like-minded people singing from the same hymn sheet. If what they sang could be termed hymns, that is. Those early scenes did portray an almost eerie calm, so you could understand the attraction of this quiet existence, but the central figure's thoughts were relegated to the narration of Hanh fan Benedict Cumberbatch popping up intermittently on the soundtrack.
That was aside from a sequence where one of the community's talks was being held, and a little girl took the microphone to ask why she felt so sad about her doggy dying, and what she could about it. The answer from the Zen master was simplistic in the extreme, comparing the passing of the pet to the cloud turning into rain, and that water ending up in your tea, which kind of makes sense in a "just accept it" sort of way, but in another was no help at all: the girl gave a confused giggle on hearing his advice, and you may do the same. All this would be fine, but you wanted more from a man considered one of the great thinkers of peace: Dr Martin Luther King had been one of his staunchest advocates, but mostly you learned minor details such as this man liked the sound of bells as an aid to meditation.
Yet over and over the running time was given to the students, who were undoubtedly a fine example of how much this way of belief can do for your peace of mind, but maybe not so charismatic as the man who inspired them. Once we reached the United States we were privy to seeing how the public reacted to them (an amusing diversion sees a fundamentalist Christian street preacher try to put the monks off their meditation, then argued with by a passerby with a good point to make), and also the American students' meetings with their families, often after a couple of years away from them. As far as we could discern, those families may have considered their spiritual members as rather selfish, not selfless, but again we could only reach so far beyond the superficial: the most telling scene was where the master arrived to give a talk in New York City and all we saw of it was a silent shot through the window of the stage door. So it was relaxing to watch, but the only thing you took away was stuff about the nobility of suffering and the benefits of being at one with nature, which you could guess yourself. Music by Germaine Franco.
[Loads of extras here on Thunderbird Releasing's DVD, with a behind the scenes featurette, interviews and such nuggets as "How to Meditate".]