Review: ‘Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry’ is a spiritual, not literal, exploration of the activist poet

“Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” is a movie with an odd title, since during its almost 90 minutes, we never actually see the venerable Kentucky-born poet-activist except in archival photographs. Though he vocally participated, he clearly refused to be filmed, even for director Laura Dunn, whose admiration for Berry goes back to her use of his poetry in her stellar 2007 environmental documentary “The Unforeseen.”

In his physical place are wistful rural vistas, close-ups of artisans at work and interviews with farmers. In lieu of a literal fulfillment of the title’s promise, Dunn gives us a spiritual one, an aggressively poetic elegy to the pre-industrialized agrarian work/life ethic Berry made his most deeply felt cause. Somber documentaries about the plight of those who’ve gone from modestly working the land to incurring debt to feed a mechanized industry are numerous, and Dunn’s version of this story isn’t new, but it has the added resonance of Berry’s affable drawl narrating choice verses or answering Dunn’s questions over lovingly edited footage of his home and neighboring farmlands. (It’s Kentucky, so tobacco is a big part of the represented crops memorialized here, which may be off-putting to some.) If you can get past the overwrought, ill-conceived “Koyaanisqatsi”-esque sequence set to Berry’s poem “A Timbered Choir” that opens “Look & See,” and accept that the man himself is more thematic presence than explored person, Dunn’s hearth-and-soil romanticism has its share of beautiful melancholy, like an attentively curated scrapbook.


“Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry”


No rating

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center