GrandeWhat Is Life?
Reichle, Director; featuring Francisco
Varela and H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, XIV Dalai
First Run Films / Icarus, New York, 2004
VHS, 80 mins., col.
Sales: $398; rental: $125
Distributors website: http://www.frif.com/new2005/mon.html.
Reviewed by Rob Harle
This is a gentle and moving film. It is
so refreshing to see a movie that whilst
presenting challenging and provocative
ideas does so without a hint of aggression.
Without the hard-sell, in-your-face hype
that many Hollywood style movies and,
particularly, one hour television specials
of similar genre, project.
Francisco Varela, who died in 2001 at
age 54 was a truly great scientist, not
only because of the contributions he made
to neurobiology and cognitive science
but because of his passion and dedication
to the quest of science. When students
came to work with him, he would simply
observe them working on a project for
a short time; from this observation he
could tell if science was their calling.
As the film shows, this passion brushed
off on everyone with whom Varela was associated,
including His Holiness the 14th
The film successfully integrates the three
major aspects of Varelas work and
life: (1) the notion of embodiment (2)
the meaning of self-responsibility and
(3) spirituality, in a way that is easy
to understand. It is a film suitable for
virtually all ages and is not especially
abstruse in scientific jargon or complexity.
Franz Reichle is to be congratulated on
creating a film that has taken a complex
scientific and philosophical issuethe
nature of embodiment or, perhaps, better
put, "How is it possible for body
and mind to exist as an integrated whole?"and
presenting it in an uncomplicated manner.
This success is partly due to Varelas
own gift for communication; it is, perhaps,
also his personal appearance in the film
that makes it so special. The film is
grounded most sensitively in the reality
of Varelas personal lifehis
partners, children, and his ordeal with
cancer, much of the footage is in and
around his home in Chile.
Monte GrandeWhat is Life?
does not dwell on Varelas academic
institutional life as such, giving no
real mention of the papers and books he
has published. It contains extensive footage
of many of his closest associates, including
Humberto Maturana, Heinz von Foerster,
Jean-Pierre Dupuy, and Professor Anne
Harrington. These leading scientists and
philosophers all help explain Varelas
ideas, especially the notion of autopoiesis
(life based on autonomy) and the nature
of consciousness. Their presence in the
film together with members of his family,
including Amy Cohen Varela and former
partners, helps us understand a little
better Francisco Varela the person.
As Varela himself explains, his association
with Buddhism began after a more or less
revelatory dream that, simply stated,
convinced him that all his current scientific
explanations of the meaning of life were
nonsense. This revelation started him
on a new intellectual investigative adventure
that now included spirituality. That is,
it allowed his heart and head to work
together harmoniously and brought about
the realisation of the true value of subjective
observation as well as objective,
empirical evidence as valid scientific
ways of knowing. It was the spiritual-scientific
symbiosis aspect of his life and work
that brought about a close association
with the Dalai Lama.
Varela was a great conference attendee
and organiser and had quite a following
at these. As the film shows not all these
conferences were hard-edge scientific
affairs, with footage of the 1981 Lindisfarne
and the Mind and Life Conference. My only
criticism of the film is that it could
have benefited from a sensitive background
Whilst Im not sure that the film
completely succeeds in deconstructing
the division between science and art as
Bernhard Pörksen suggests on the
front coverit is going to
take more than a short film, brilliant
as this one is, to bring about such a
miracle. His words do, however, sum up
the film nicely, "Delightful! Varela
was a master of synthesis . . . . Admired,
controversial, and endowed with the intoxicating
passion of an exceptionally gifted researcher.
Told affectionately and gently, touchingly
and astutely . . . (MONTE GRANDE) succeeds
. . . in deconstructing the prevailing
division between science and art".