Thirty or forty years ago the release of an artistically challenging French film was a major cultural event.
New Wave classics like Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows were widely reviewed and distributed in America, and their meaning was the subject of countless late-night rap sessions on college campuses. No longer. For a complicated set of commercial and aesthetic reasons, it's now more difficult to view the latest cinematic gems from France than a generation ago.
Our culture is the poorer for the lack.
The Gleaners and I is a good case in point. A feature-length documentary that's every bit as good as the masterworks of yesteryear, it's been much acclaimed at film festivals abroad for its artistic motivations. But few have noticed that it's also a reflection on certain issues of great importance to Pope John Paul II.
“The so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism,’ … involves so much ‘throwing-away’ and ‘waste,’” the Holy Father writes in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. “An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.”
“All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction,” the Holy Father continues, “because one quickly learns — unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products — that the more one possesses, the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”
Aging New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda (Vagabond and Cleo From 5 to 7) gives no indication of having read this or any other papal text. Her film isn't Catholic in intent. But its imaginative exploration of the underside of our consumerist culture is filled with insights which parallel those of John Paul II.
Varda defines “gleaners” as people who gather usable food or goods that others have no use for. This includes city dwellers who pick up furniture discarded on street corners as well as itinerant farm workers who support themselves by salvaging fruits and vegetables rejected after the harvest.
The movie is, in part, inspired by the 1857 painting The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet that depicts women in a wheat field, bending over to gather a harvest's remnants. Both the artist and the filmmaker delight in motion and significant details that define their characters’ activities.
Varda takes her hand-held cameras out into the streets and fields, where she observes both those who glean out of necessity and those who glean as if it were a hobby or a sport. She shows special sympathy for people living at society's margins like the poor, the homeless and recovering alcoholics.
There are also gleaners who don't fit comfortably into any convenient category. A young chef of a highly rated restaurant believes that good food should never be wasted. So he regularly scours the leavings of his region's harvests for fresh herbs for his dishes. He prefers these to what he can buy in the local markets.
Even more unusual is a neatly dressed vegetarian who feeds himself from the produce discarded by large city markets. At first he seems annoyingly self-indulgent and eccentric. But Varda follows him back to the shelter where he lives. We learn that he's a former high-school teacher who's devoted himself to instructing immigrants in the basics of French language so they can find work. His life is rooted entirely in meaningful service to the disadvantaged.
Varda employs a personal, discursive narrative style that enables her to expand the subject matter to encompass contemporary artists whose methods are similar to gleaning. After we see them foraging for objects on city streets, the filmmaker interviews them in their studios as they explain how and why they incorporate this stuff into their sculptures and collages.
A subtext is Varda's meditation on her own mortality. After a montage that focuses on gleaners’ hands, she briefly photographs her own wrinkled skin, noting that “my hands keep telling me that the end is near.” And during a visit to the harvests in Burgundy, she stops off at a local museum and shows us, in great detail, The Last Judgment by Renaissance painter Roger Van der Weyden. This puts the footage that follows in a subtle spiritual context.
The Gleaners and I is a biting commentary on the materialist values of much of contemporary culture. We see how much is unnecessarily wasted while at the same time those at society's margins are often shamefully neglected.
But Varda also celebrates life, finding beauty in unexpected places. As she journeys from city to countryside and back again, she takes time to include a series of interviews with couples whom she's met along the way who've been happily married for decades. Their quiet joy is contagious.
Because Hollywood rarely manufactures product about subjects that approximate Catholic teaching, it may be worth the extra effort required to find this passionate film (and to read the subtitles as the scenes unfold). Its currently limited release is scheduled to expand to other urban areas and university towns.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.