The unusual, if not bizarre, spiritual journey of an Englishman who became a Buddhist monk in Thailand, moved to Iceland, and then gave it all up to marry a Russian is recounted in engaging docu “Act Normal.” Appropriately contemplative in pace, given its subject’s beliefs, this sophomore effort by Icelandic helmer Olaf de Fleur shifts away the jocular tone of his debut “Africa United,” but still lets the warmth of its protagonist’s personality shine through. Pro production values make “Normal” look better than the usual docu fare, which should provide fest circuit-legs and an increased chance of offshore TV bookings.
Protagonist Robert T. Edison explains in interviews throughout the pic that he was a shy, teenage loner when he discovered Buddhism as a 14-year-old living in Nottingham, England. By the time he was 18, he’d already spent time in Brit Buddhist retreats, then made the decision to visit a monastery in Thailand, planning to stay for perhaps three or four months. He ended up spending 10 years as a fully ordained monk, living in various monasteries around Thailand.
Using interview material shot over a 12-year period by de Fleur, pic tells how Edison, who adopted the name Dhammanando, ended up moving to Reykjavik, Iceland, to start a temple serving the immigrant Thai community there. Falling in love with a Russian woman (interviewed here, but not named in credits), he left the monk’s life in order to marry her.
Editing by de Fleur somewhat confusingly crosscuts between Dhammanando/Edison in 2005, back in his monk’s robes, on a journey to a forest monastery, with the older material.
The most compelling sequences feature Dhammanando/Edison after he left the sect, having to take work as a security guard to support himself.
Although clearly devoted to his religion, Dhammanando/Edison displays an endearingly down-to-earth personality. There’s something charmingly incongruous about his priestly Asian garb and earthy, Nottingham-accented cussing that occasionally slips from his mouth. Pic doesn’t quite plumb the depths of his soul, but he opens up well enough to retain audience interest.
Staged sequences re-enacting Edison’s childhood add a welcome whimsical layer to the pic’s narrative.
Sparse electronic score, brooding and otherworldly at once, by Bardi Johannsson stands out in the pic’s generally solid tech package.