Simone Weil, the philosopher Albert Camus called the only great spirit of our times.
  • Simone Weil, the philosopher Albert Camus called "the only great spirit of our times."

The other night I watched a screener of Julia Haslett's documentary An Encounter with Simone Weil, and by the end of it I was in tears. I felt that tingle of unease that comes from paying serious attention to Simone Weil, or at least from paying attention to someone else paying serious attention to Weil—that suspicion that you're too selfish a person, not aware enough of other people's struggling, not doing enough (not doing anything!) about other people's pain. Weil was a French philosopher in the 1930s whose response to human suffering was to bring suffering upon herself: working in factories in order to understand factory conditions, for instance, or signing herself up for the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis during World War II and instructed to get lots of sleep and eat well, but she refused to eat any better than the rations her countrymen in occupied France were getting, which led to her death.

Two other deaths are woven into An Encounter with Simone Weil—strands of autobiography that come from the filmmaker, whose father took his own life when she was 17 and whose brother struggles with mental illness throughout the film. "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity," Weil wrote—a line of text that sets the film in motion. Could attention have saved her father from killing himself? Could attention save her brother? I'm friends with a relative of the filmmaker, which partially explains my weeping, but anyone who's been at a loss to help someone in the midst of an internal struggle will know the feeling. Moreover, Haslett doesn't confine herself to the family story. She touches on all kinds of suffering, and her meditations on Weil's teachings—through interviews with scholars and members of Weil's own family—don't lead to any pat conclusions. At one point, Haslett is so frustrated by the dead ends (and by Weil's ultimate turn toward Christianity, which Haslett sees as a betrayal) that she convinces a friend whose been studying Weil to act out the role of Weil so that Haslett can confront her. The film is an inventive and heartrending portrait of a young woman today grappling with the provocative ideas of a woman who's been dead nearly a century. It's soaked in sadness and the transports of sympathy.

It's also a nice antidote to all that Ayn Rand crap floating out there in popular culture and politics right now, and a useful introduction to Weil. An Encounter with Simone Weil plays at Northwest Film Forum tonight through Thursday night (at 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm). I'll be at the Thursday screenings to introduce it.