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Review: ‘Summer in the Forest’ shines with empathy

Celine Innocent, left, Jean Vanier and Fred Dethouy in a scene from "Summer in the Forest."
(Manguaram Consciousness Films)

Documentarian Randall Wright turns a gentle, observational lens onto the community of L’Arche, on the outskirts of Paris, in the deeply humane film “Summer in the Forest.” L’Arche is a commune where adults with mental and physical disabilities can live in peace, comfort and connection with the world and others. It was founded in the early 1960s in part by former Canadian naval officer Jean Vanier, who wanted to create an alternative to the grim institutions that were once the only choice.

The film follows the daily lives of residents, documenting their routines, joys and pleasures; their hopes, dreams, traumas and loves.

The founders of L’Arche have created 149 communities in 37 countries, hoping for a world where all are accepted while creating small pockets of connections. “Summer in the Forest” also visits the community in Palestine, and builds a thematic through line of war and conflict as a backdrop to these peaceful communities built on relationship and presence.

Vanier, with his military background, speaks often about peace, and the inherent human instinct to strive for peace. That is in stark contrast to the war that he and other residents have witnessed. Having lived with many of the residents for more than 45 years, Vanier describes them all with an intimate understanding. He speaks of the friendship, “freedom and foolishness” he’s discovered in this little commune, and describes it all with a loving affection and philosophical outlook.

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Wright’s film is a beautiful and deeply empathetic depiction of this community, a portrait of Vanier and his philosophy of compassion as the source of true human connection, found and forged with those who have otherwise been cast out by society.

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‘Summer in the Forest’

Not rated

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Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle Playhouse, Pasadena; Laemmle Town Center, Encino


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