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Monte Grande——What Is Life?

by Franz Reichle, Director; featuring Francisco Varela and H.H. Tenzin Gyatso, XIV Dalai Lama
First Run Films / Icarus, New York, 2004
VHS, 80 mins., col.
Sales: $398; rental: $125
Distributor’s 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 Dalai Lama.

The film successfully integrates the three major aspects of Varela’s 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 issue–the 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 Varela’s 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 Varela’s personal life——his partners, children, and his ordeal with cancer, much of the footage is in and around his home in Chile.

Monte Grande——What is Life? does not dwell on Varela’s 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 Varela’s 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 music theme.

Whilst I’m not sure that the film completely succeeds in deconstructing the division between science and art as Bernhard Pörksen suggests on the front cover——it 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".



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