Films about religious and spiritual experience keep getting made. Occasionally, a sensitive director will produce a masterpiece. Think of silent filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s dazzling “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” or “Francesco, Giullare di Dio” (literally, “Francis, The Clown of God” but known in English as “The Flowers of St. Francis”) by Robert Rosellini (who collaborated with Federico Fellini on the script). The latter film was called “the most beautiful film in the world” by François Truffaut. I specifically cite Rosellini’s film because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the only film other than “Vanishing Field” where actual monks, non-actors, play the part of monks. There have been documentaries about monks (recently and notably “Into Great Silence”), and films featuring actors playing monks, but “monk actors” are as rare as unicorns.
In the masterpiece here reviewed, the monk in question is a Zen Buddhist, not a Franciscan Catholic, but contemplation is contemplation, and monks are monks, regardless of their particular tradition.
Jogen Salzberg (a vowed Buddhist monk) plays the character of Jacob, a young blogger, who is overwhelmed by the world situation, flirting with conspiracy theories, and in search of an alternative life. He sets out on a project to “hack the Bardo.” The Bardo is the Tibetan term for a state of consciousness between death and rebirth. It is Jacob’s ambition to enter the Bardo without dying and manage to be reborn in a less frightening time. This is established at the start of the film in a brilliant and quite comic monologue, presented as an episode of Jacob’s video blog, written by Salzberg himself, that touches upon sincere spiritual longing, mixed with madness and conspiratorial paranoia. Jacob’s desperate and somewhat crazed sincerity is readily apparent.
Salzberg’s intensity and focussed concentration are so potent that when Jacob switches off the video and sets off on his quest, the suspense is alarmingly engaging: this character could be on the edge of suicide or mass murder or something else completely unexpected.
It turns out to be the “something else completely unexpected” when Jacob finds himself a postulant at a Zen Buddhist monastery, where he is welcomed as a student, taken seriously, and forms an attachment with a sympathetic, intellectual fellow monk, Tomas (excellently played by Ed Welsh, another ordained monk). Together they set out on an intellectual and contemplative adventure in search of enlightenment.
It is Alli’s exceptional accomplishment to make this adventure riveting and suspenseful without relying on a convoluted plot. Other films have dealt with consciousness as an exciting topic, but usually rely on elaborate plotting to lure the audience into engagement: think, for example, of “Altered States,” or “Flatliners.” Such films get seasoned with romantic complications, political flapdoodle, the trappings of science fiction, or whatever. Alli has the sense and the courage to eschew all such nonsense, and engage directly with the reality of life in a monastery.
To those unfamiliar with monastic life, it certainly appears to be dull, repetitive, and commonplace. Yet, anybody who has been drawn to spend even a short time in a monastic setting will discover that it is anything but. The adventure of contemplation can be as exciting as climbing Mt. Everest. Alli and his actor monks are fully aware of this reality and confident that if they tell it true, the audience will feel it as well. And tell it true is exactly what they do.
When Jacob sits in meditation, unmoving, cross-legged on a pillow, after telling his friend Tomas to ring a gong should he stop breathing, the excitement is as tangible as it might be if we were watching him scale an avalanche.
Alli uses his formidable cinematic skills to explore the interior experience of Jacob as he sits and contemplates, creating the sensation that we are actually inside Jacob’s mind experiencing his thoughts and visions. These visions are not dreams, or fantasies, but actual interior experiences of the sort that will be familiar to anybody who has spent serious time in the discipline of meditation. “Vanishing Field” is a poetic investigation of very real experience, not a science fiction fantasy.
The sympathetic and patient Zen Master of a Zen monastery, Hogen Beys, is convincing and engaging playing himself as the sympathetic and patient Zen Master of a Zen monastery.
The inhabitants of Jacob’s visionary world—a dragonfly, an oracle, and the mysterious Ubume (the last a type of spirit known to Japanese folk tradition, often that of a woman who died in childbirth)—are well-performed by Douglas Allen, Nita Bryant, and Sylvi Alli, respectively.
Sylvi Alli, director Antero Alli’s wife and colleague, also provides an excellent and haunting musical score.
The denouement of Jacob’s quest is satisfying and moving. At a mere 70 minutes long, “Vanishing Field” is a gem of a motion picture.
Admittedly, “Vanishing Field” may not be to the taste of the average film fan, but for anybody who has been drawn to the contemplative life, it is likely to enchant and astonish. If you are such a person, you may find it thrilling, as did I.
Originally scheduled to premiere in Portland in March, the theatrical release of “The Vanishing Field” has been postponed due to Covid-19 pandemic, but you can stream it here.
“The Vanishing Field,” by Antero Alli (story) and Jogen Salzberg (collaborating writer). Producer: Antero Alli. Director: Antero Ali. Music: Sylvi Alli. Cinematography: Antero Alli. Special Effects: Michael McWhirter. Production Assistant: Dragos Andrei Dobai.
Dragonfly: Douglas Allen. Ubume: Sylvi Alli. Himself: Hogen Bays. Oracle: Nita Bryant. Jacob: Jogen Salzberg. Tomas: Ed Welsh.