You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry’

An admiring but unexciting look at the life and work of the celebrated writer and farmer.

Steve Smith, Mary Berry, Tonya Berry.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2335444/

Equal parts hagiographic biography and heartland celebration, “The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” should be of interest to passionate devotees of the film’s subject — an award-winning poet, essayist, novelist and farmer noted for his environmental activism — and anyone concerned about the challenges and opportunities facing family farmers in an age of industrial agriculture. Trouble is, director Laura Dunn’s well-meaning but meandering documentary isn’t likely to generate much interest beyond those target audiences, despite its recent accumulation of accolades on the festival circuit.

Dunn’s latest effort can be viewed as a companion piece to her previous feature, “The Unforeseen” (2007), an affectingly melancholy contemplation of the clashes between developers and environmentalists in and around Austin, Texas. From that film, which skillfully employed Berry’s poem “Santa Clara Valley” as running commentary, Dunn has progressed to making Berry the “star” of an ambitious documentary that attempts to be both an up-close study of the celebrated writer — whose 1977 book “The Unsettling of America” weighed the cultural and spiritual attributes of farming against the disruptive aspects of massive agribusiness — and a group portrait of farmers in and around Henry Country, Ken., where Berry resides.

Since Berry declined to be interviewed on camera, Dunn had to rely on vintage clips and photos, along with recorded interviews and poetry readings, to make his presence fully felt. (Think of how the makers of “The Kid Stays in the Picture” used that audiobook recording by Robert Evans, or what Maximilian Schell did in “Marlene” with audio commentary by a camera-shy Marlene Dietrich, and you’ll have some idea of what to expect.) Onscreen interviews with others — including Tanya Berry, the writer’s wife, and Mary Berry, his adult daughter — round out the uncritically admiring depiction of an artist who thrives by remaining rooted in rural Kentucky, and has become a champion for his neighbors (and, by extension, all family farmers) as they struggle to maintain their own ties to the land.

Dunn obviously shares Berry’s concern and sympathy for his fellow farmers, who cling to traditional values even as the costs of planting, raising and harvesting their crops relentlessly accelerate. Unfortunately, the filmmaker is hard-pressed to find a new perspective for this all-too-familiar story. As a result, long stretches of “The Seer” come across as echoes of those sincere but repetitive save-the-farm documentaries that once were a staple of the Sundance Film Festival — an impression reinforced by the prominent billing of Robert Redford as executive producer (along with Terrence Malick).

Another problem: The film’s lyrical representation of tobacco farming is bound to rankle some otherwise simpatico viewers who know just how dangerous this harvest really is.

“The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” contains some interesting testimonials from Kentucky farmers, most notably Steve Smith, who admits he was ready to abandon his lifework until he switched to organic farming. And Lee Daniel’s exquisite cinematography cries out to be savored on a big screen; an opening montage of urban chaos, accompanied by Berry’s reading of his visionary poem “A Timbered Choir,” is as powerful as any similar sequence in Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyannisqatsi.” More often, however, the documentary is too tepid to generate anything like excitement or outrage, and elicits admiration more for its intentions than for its execution.

Film Review: 'The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry'

Reviewed at Nashville Film Festival, April 18, 2016. (Also in SXSW, Hot Docs, Montclair, Environmental Film Festivals.) Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Two Birds Film production. Produced by Jef Sewell, Laura Dunn. Executive producers, Robert Redford, Terrence Malick. Co-producers, Gill Holland, Nick Offerman, Owsley Brown III, Elaine Musselman.

Crew: Directed, edited by Laura Dunn; co-director, Jef Sewell. Camera (color), Lee Daniel; music, Kerry Muzzey; sound, Justin Hennard; associate producer, Lynsey Jones.

With: Steve Smith, Mary Berry, Tonya Berry.

More Film

  • Oscars Placeholder

    Make-Up and Hair Stylist Guild Applauds Academy's Stance on Airing Every Oscar Winner

    Rowdy boos were followed by triumphant cheers at the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards on Saturday in Los Angeles, as the Hollywood union touched on a week of controversy over a reversed decision to hand out four Oscars during the show’s commercial breaks. Hair and makeup was one of the four categories that would [...]

  • Marvelous Mrs Maisel Vice

    'Vice,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Lead Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Winners

    Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” starring Oscar nominees Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, won two awards at the sixth annual Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Saturday night. The film won for best period and/or character makeup as well as special makeup effects. “Mary Queen of Scots” received the prize for period [...]

  • Bette Midler

    Bette Midler to Perform on the Oscars (EXCLUSIVE)

    Bette Midler will perform “The Place Where Lost Things Go” at the Oscar ceremonies on Feb. 24, Variety has learned. Midler, a longtime friend of composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman, will sing the song originally performed by Emily Blunt in “Mary Poppins Returns.” The song, by Shaiman and his lyricist partner Scott Wittman, is one of five [...]

  • Olmo Teodoro Cuaron, Alfonso Cuaron and

    Alfonso Cuarón Tells Why His Scoreless 'Roma' Prompted an 'Inspired' Companion Album

    Back around the ‘90s, “music inspired by the film” albums got a bad name, as buyers tired of collections full of random recordings that clearly were inspired by nothing but the desire to use movie branding to launch a hit song. But Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Roma,” is determined to find some artistic validity [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival 2019 Award Winners

    Berlin Film Festival 2019: Nadav Lapid's 'Synonyms' Wins Golden Bear

    Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms,” about a young Israeli man in Paris who has turned his back on his native country, won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale on Saturday. The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize went to François Ozon’s French drama “By the Grace of God,” a fact-based account of the Catholic Church [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel,' 'Lego Movie 2' to Lead President's Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” is holding a slim lead ahead of “Lego Movie 2’s” second frame with an estimated four-day take of $29.1 million from 3,790 North American locations. “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” meanwhile, is heading for about $25 million for a domestic tally of around $66 million. The two films lead the pack [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content