“The Dhamma Brothers” looks at 36 hardened criminals, many of them murderers, who participate in an intensive, 10-day Buddhist meditation course taught by two civilians in an Alabama maximum security prison. Shot in this facility during the tryout retreat, pic boasts numerous hooks: religious bigotry, prison reform, crime, redemption, an ancient discipline that bridges millennia and a cast that bridges continents. Though subject matter definitely trumps stylistic nuance in this solid journeyman effort, this real-life “Shawshank Redemption,” which opens April 11 at Gotham’s Cinema Village, could lock up solid cable and ancillary blocks.
In 2002, those in charge at Donaldson Correctional Facility were persuaded to offer a program of Vipasanna, a peculiarly strict form of Buddhist meditation even more rigidly structured than regular prison routine, demanding nine days of absolute silence. The prison gym was transformed, via large sheets of blue plastic, into a “monastery” where bells signal time-breaks and shoes are verboten.
Docu closely focuses on four inmates who bear witness to the process at every stage. Their words are quoted in insert shots throughout, and the murderous deeds that landed them in jail, which meditation will force them to face, are re-enacted, albeit hazily and indirectly, with the main points of the action transpiring offscreen.
Made by an unlikely trio of director-producers — cultural anthropologist/psychotherapist Jenny Phillips, documentary filmmaker Andrew Kukura and film-school administrator Anne Marie Stein — docu shows inmates immersed in rapt meditation, some in silhouette, some in group shots and some individually framed. Arranged around this calm center are interviews with those inmates, their families, their guards, their teachers and assorted Alabamans on the street asked for their opinions.
Predictably, the initial skepticism, expressed by virtually everyone except the Australian teachers (who are merely apprehensive), gives way to amazement at the positive changes effected by the 10-day program. Months later, badass lifers are still practicing meditation and striving to live by its peaceful precepts. Prison violence de-escalates.
Yet shortly after the teachers leave, this uniquely successful therapy is abruptly terminated. Filmmakers attribute this turnabout to Bible Belt residents (“I’m a Christian. I don’t believe in Buddhism or any kind of witchcraft at all”), while the prison chaplain, seeing his influence waning, easily prevails upon conservative authorities to stamp out the alien heresy. Pic manages to end on a hopeful note, however.
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