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Good Letters


Tonight, I’m paying attention to one of my “essentials.”

You probably have a movie like this one—a movie that repairs you, that restores your spirits, that put everything into perspective. (If you do, leave a comment so we can all check it out.)

But let me tell you what I’m watching.

I see a black-robed man, a red bible in his hand, standing in a cabbage patch and delivering the gospel. There is goodness, he says, in what’s overlooked and rejected. His bible tells him so.

This man is not a pastor. And that’s not really a bible. He’s a French magistrate, and that heavy red tome in his hands is the penal code.

Here in this harvested field, he’s rebuking landowners who forbid the needy from gathering the fruits and vegetables that the harvesting machines have left behind. “All these tomatoes can be gleaned,” he says. “And it’s not me, it’s the penal code that says so—in article R-26.10.”

He adds that an edict from November 1554 makes the same provision: “It allows the poor, the wretched, the deprived, to enter the fields once harvesting is over.”

Then, like John Wayne after he’s brought justice to town, the magistrate walks off through the cabbages. He’s one of the heroes in The Gleaners and I.

Made by the delightful documentarian Agnes Varda, The Gleaners and I is a study of the history of gleaning. Gleaners were, originally, those who took what was leftover after the harvest—the poor dining on crumbs from the table of the wealthy.

But it’s also a film about famous depictions of gleaners—like paintings by François Millet and Jules Breton. (Varda gives us close-ups of those works.)

And it’s about much, much more than that.

Through Varda’s cameras, we watch the tradition continue. In the fields, potatoes and apples lie rejected, but they still offer sweetness and sustenance. In the square after an open market, parsley and bread are left behind, but they can keep a man from going hungry. And in the trailer parks and shelters, broken people are brushed aside, but they are still full of personality, humor, history, and astonishing imagination.

And Agnes Varda is, herself, a gleaner. Her eyes are her tools, and her camera is her basket. Humble and insatiably curious, she seeks, finds, and redeems.

Leftover figs. Abandoned, heart-shaped potatoes. Her own wrinkled hand. (“A horror!”) Discarded furniture. A clock with no hands. And faces—oh, the faces that her camera finds! Dumpster divers. Marketplace scavengers. The alcoholic who lost his truck-driving job, then lost his wife and kids, and who now lives among gypsies, his entire story carved upon his face.

Through Varda’s lenses, we watch the definition of “gleaning” expand. Among harvesters, she pauses to ask couples how they met, and finds amusing stories of courtship that put a whole new spin on “gleaning.” Through her windshield, she films passing trucks, gathering their colors and details. She’s a tour guide introducing us to places no maps will identify, people who aren’t in the phone book, and wonders you can’t find on eBay.

“I like filming rot, leftovers, waste,” she says. And she proves it. A patch of her ceiling, discolored by mold, becomes an exhibit in itself.

Her improvisational spirit is contagious. You wish you could step into the movie and follow her from oyster beds to antique shops. What could have been an enormous guilt trip—a condemnation of the rich and a pity party for the poor—is instead wildly imaginative and unpredictable, the documentary equivalent of jazz. Varda seizes on anything accidental, even the sight of her camera’s dangling lens cap, and transforms it into something that enhances the whole.

One of those surprises is a stop at the Musée de l’Hôtel-Dieu, where we study the The Last Judgment, a polyptych painted in the mid-1400s by Rogier van der Weyden. Why would Varda, in the middle of considering the tension between wealthy farmers and hungry gleaners, suddenly dwell on a vision of the Archangel Michael weighing the scales, lifting those who are lightweight up to resurrection, and casting those who are heavy down into fiery torments?

It is to her credit that Varda offers us little more than a description of this painting, and then moves on. Now we’re prepared to see the cosmic significance in all that follows.

Saints step out of the shadows. The man who hasn’t paid for food in a decade, who chooses to glean as a protest against a wasteful consumer culture. The gleaner who, seeming to be a homeless loner, turns out to be a man of considerable education who devotes his life to teaching immigrants and living among them in a shelter. The celebrated chef in the highly rated restaurant who cooks with herbs, fruits, and vegetables he took with his own hands from harvested fields.

Again and again, Varda shows us that the Kingdom of God is here, now, and we can find it right where Jesus said it would be—in the field, amongst the poor and the rejected, along the side of the road.

During last summer’s “Acts of Discovery” film seminar at the Glen Workshop, I showed five films about art, play, imagination, and resourcefulness. I saved The Gleaners and I for last, because it took strands of the previous films and discussions and wove them together into a celebratory finale. It showed us that the work of artists is really the work of becoming fully human.

I revisit Varda and her gleaners like dear friends year after year. She walks out into the world with her arms wide open. She reminds me how to love my neighbor. She reminds me how to listen. She reminds me that what I throw away reveals my own lack of imagination, my laziness, my blindness.

And tonight, as the credits roll, I feel brand new again. The world feels like a feast spread out for me. An abundance.

When we pay attention, attention pays.

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