Summer in the Forest review – affecting study of Jean Vanier’s vision of peace and love

A review in the Guardian of Summer in the Forest if you fancy an idea for when you next visit the cinema. This documentary is about the Catholic author who created the L’Arche community for people with learning disabilities [and] traces his activism and faith from wartime to today.

Jean Vanier, centre, in the documentary Summer in the Forest.
Pursuit of vision and faith … Jean Vanier, centre, in the documentary Summer in the Forest. Photograph: Randall Wright

This is a calm and often affecting study of L’Arche, a community of people with learning disabilities in Trosly-Breuil, northern France. It was founded by the Canadian-born Catholic author and philosopher Jean Vanier, a saintly, snowy-haired figure who is now 88. As a young officer in the British Royal Navy, Vanier was stricken by the horror of the second world war and the Nazi death camps. He felt a vocational calling to do good that found its focus in the early 1960s, when a priest showed him the grim conditions in which mentally ill people were housed.

Watch a trailer for Summer in the Forest

Vanier began L’Arche, which now has hundreds of franchise-type offshoots all over the world. His is, above all, a peaceful vision, if not precisely non-partisan. Summer in the Forest pointedly emphasises the branch of L’Arche in Israel’s cccupied territories, showing Vanier’s arrival there: he voices his approval of non-violent Palestinian activism. The most touching moment comes at the end of the film, back in France, when Vanier presides over the wedding of two of the community’s young inhabitants: a man and a woman. It is an event that permits us to ponder the enigma of the bachelor Vanier and his own romantic feelings, what he has renounced and what he has embraced in pursuit of his vision and faith.

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