Few writers resist a reader's love as Simone Weil does. She is both utterly unforgiving and almost supernaturally compassionate, thus it is a profoundly difficult task to read her works with any seriousness without succumbing to an obliterating sense of one's own unworthiness, guilt, and privilege. Even so, Weil's writing is undergoing something of a renaissance in academia and, despite her obscurity in life, she has come to be recognized as one of the key intellectuals of the twentieth century. Politically a very, very unorthodox communist who refused membership in the party, whose hierarchies she felt eviscerated the principles of the doctrine, and spiritually an adherent to mystical Franciscan Christianity who nevertheless never formally converted to the Church, Weil tends to beguile readers with one set of ideas only to chase them away with the next. Her uncompromising intellect, her unstinting habit of practicing what she preached, her asceticism, her humility, these qualities are not easy for anyone to swallow. Our egos are inevitably bruised when we read her work and we inevitably resist applying the stringent political and spiritual instruction that proves so difficult to argue against. Still, I am drawn to Weil and find a rather bleak spiritual solace in her work.
Here below is a list of films that are as brilliant and exacting in their examination of politics, spirituality, especially Christianity, and the human capacities for violence and compassion as Weil's writings. Weil has not been the subject of a biopic (and, lord, she would hate that idea), though there is a documentary, An Encounter with Simone Weil, that, without putting too fine a point on it, is embarrassingly bad, a first-person 'spiritual' exploration of Weil's work by a filmmaker who is entirely close-minded to Weil's religious thought and mostly uses her writing as a means of grappling with her own liberal guilt, though somehow she is never motivated to actually undertake any kind of activism or spiritual practice. At one point, she hires an actress (a spectacularly bad one) to impersonate Weil so that she, the filmmaker, can ask her if she should feel bad about her privilege. This film is not worthy of Weil, intellectually, politically, spiritually, or in any other way. Here are fourteen that are:
The Ascent (1977)
The brilliant Soviet director Larisa Shepitko's last film before her death in a car accident at age 41, The Ascent is a devastating and bleak drama about the agonies of two soldiers, one an idealist and the other a pragmatist, lost in the snow and captured by enemy Germans during World War II. A meditation on violence and the will to survive, this crushing film offers a sort of a sort of nihilistically positive point of view: martyrdom is a torment, but death in righteousness doesn't damage the spirit as cruelly survival without.
Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko's masterwork cannot be easily dismissed as propaganda, in part because it is too aware of the pain suffered by individuals, even if they believe in collective goals. Earth is about the conflicts that arise between peasants and kulaks over collectivization and the revolution in agriculture promised both by Soviet politics and new technology like the tractor, but Dovzhenko's lens remains attentive to subjects often sidelined in such films: the beauties of nature, the contentious moral compromises between political and spiritual ideals, and romantic love.
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Weil experienced spiritual revelations of a mystical nature at Assisi and favored Saint Francis throughout her life as a spiritual model and guide, moved by his embrace of poverty, his rebellion against institutionalized Christian practice, and his openness to God and all God's creatures. This film, Roberto Rossellini's best and his most persuasive argument for Christian ethics, offers a series of parable-like tableaux about Francis and his followers. The joy of this film is to be found in its unexpected and loving sense of humor, at times verging on slapstick - human beings can be as ridiculous in this film as they can be worthy of succor.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Pasolini's rather vexing film draws on Matthew's gospel and the canonical writings of Marxism to depict Jesus as a political radical and possibly homosexual, without undermining the miracles, mysticism, and preoccupation with religious dogma of the Biblical text. Controversial from its inception, Pasolini later felt that the film was too religious and not Marxist enough. I cannot honestly say I like this movie, but it is one of the most intellectually brilliant films ever made to contend with Christianity and communism in equal measure.
The House Is Black (1963)
This devastating short film directed by Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad combines footage of the inhabitants of a leper colony with Farrokhzad's own gorgeous poetry and passages from the Bible and the Koran. Never exploitative, The House Is Black is a potent and insistent reminder that the least of human beings is still a human being.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
"God is not a torturer." So says the priest in this evocative spiritual tincture of a film, bracing, clarifying, and ethereally moving. Director Robert Bresson is probably, other than Dreyer, Weil's closest cinematic cousin and this, of all his films, delves most deeply into what it means to be a Christian, an ethical human being, and a person afflicted by illness.These same concerns animated Weil's work both as an intellectual and as an activist.
The Little Matchgirl (2006)
Unquestionably the only Disney film that could bring Weil to mind, this animated short based on the Andersen fairy tale moves the setting from Denmark to Russia, just before the Revolution. With a color palette of deep violets, cloudy blues, and soft wintry whites, the film's aesthetic style is in stark contrast to most Disney animation, with a storybook quality that holds pockets of darkness just out of the frame. The filmmakers have claimed the choice of setting wasn't political, but there is a tacit and questioning approval of the aims of revolutionary Russia, whether they wanted it to be there or not.
A Man Escaped (1956)
My favorite of Robert Bresson's films, A Man Escaped mesmerizes despite its austere aesthetic, its paucity of dialogue or back story, and its simple plot. A stark and quiet protest against oppression, the film is about Fontaine, a Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis during the French Occupation, who plans his escape from prison. Bresson expresses a complex anti-fascist politics that, without dramatics or overt emotionalism, accepts with clear eyes the cost of those politics. Had Weil lived to see it, I can imagine this would have been a favorite film.
One of Weil's best essays, "The Iliad or the Poem of Force," is a rigorous work of scholarship that examines force, a complex term that encompasses violence across many definitions, in Homer's epic. Most films set in the ancient world fall prey to narrative methods that obscure the strangeness of these age-old myths and legends; not so in the case of Pasolini's adaptation of the Medea legend starring Maria Callas in her sole, non-operatic film role. A rare film that treats the violence of the ancient world with the aloof fatalism of the Greek texts.
Modern Times (1936)
The first twenty minutes of this film, before it descends into a more conventional Little Tramp melodrama, offer perhaps the most satirically brilliant treatment of the agony of the assembly-line worker ever put on film. Hysterical (in both sense of the term), frenetic, and mechanically inventive, these scenes of Charlie Chaplin's crazed proletarian are an indictment of factory work under capitalism only slightly less convictive than Weil's account of her time at the Renault factory, "Factory Work."
Dreyer's extraordinary film could almost count as a new Christian testament. Johannes has lost his mind after studying Kierkegaard and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. He meanders through his community, pleading with his family, neighbors, and minister to return to the faith. Rare is the film that can depict a miracle that, in its mystery and strangeness, convinces precisely because it is free of either magic or rational explanation.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Simone Weil is probably the only modern figure that can rightfully be compared to Joan of Arc, two politically engaged, spiritually devout Frenchwomen who rebelled against the Church without losing their faith. I believe that Dreyer's masterpiece is the greatest film of all time, leaving all others far behind, and that Falconetti's performance as Saint Joan is the greatest ever captured by a camera. I recommend that this film be viewed with Richard Einhorn's oratorio, "Voices of Light."
The Red and the White (1967)
Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó's anti-war film is set during the Russian Civil War and depicts the savagery and barbaric senselessness of warfare. The film is without protagonists and the camera roves like a startled and curious beast across fields and forests, witnessing one act after another of violence that begets violence that begets violence. By eschewing traditional narrative and character development conventions, Jancsó succeeds in a critique that simply cannot be interpreted in favor of war, unlike most other pacifist war films, for heroism simply ceases to exist.
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Marcel Ophuls, one of the finest documentarians of film history, spent his career tirelessly interrogating the atrocities of World War II. This extraordinary film excavates the complex and secretive history of the French people under German Occupation and the Vichy government. Ophuls dares to point a finger at the holes in the self-serving mythos of a rebellious and resisting French citizenry, demonstrating with both righteousness and a refusal to generalize, that the horrors visited on French Jews could not have succeeded without collusion, whether tacit or active. I recommend that the viewer read Weil's "What is a Jew?" in conjunction with this film.