“Do you read Camus?”

I love film, but it is hard to find films that I want to watch. Even with almost boundless choices, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon Prime and more— including the local theaters —I can look and look, and still not find what I’m looking for.

I want the story to be about things that matter, but I also want to smile. Though I am willing to take in the stories of unmitigated sorrow sometimes, I cannot do that all the time. And sometimes I am simply glad to be glad. But most of the time I need the movies I see to wrestle with the complexity of life, with the nuances of the human heart that are mysteriously, profoundly a window into the glorious ruins that we are.

And so last night when we came to the end of “My Afternoons with Margueritte,” aware that we were smiling at the screen and each other, I knew that we had been given an unusual gift of a film that understood both the wonder and the wound of life. There was tragedy, the heart-aching sadness that everyone everywhere feels deep inside, but also a tenderness that is difficult to capture in cinema, the kind that makes the soul smile.

From a French novel, The Fallow Mind, the film tells the tale of a man who lost his way early on in life. Seemingly born of an accident, he never knew his father, and his mother openly disdained him. Bullied by his teacher and peers, he stopped being interested in school as a young boy, and slowly found his way into being a lovable oaf in a small town in southwestern France.

But it is his mind that is fallow, uncultivated, waiting, hoping that someday someone will pay attention to him— and on a sunny afternoon, walking through the park, an old woman does. Treating him with open-hearted affection and dignity, slowly, slowly he comes alive, surprising himself with who he is and what he can learn.

While there are others in the film whose presence adds texture and context, the principals are two of France’s best actors, Gerard Depardieu and Gisele Casadesus. At least a generation apart— he was 65 and she was 96 when the film was made —a tender love grows between them that is a million miles from romance. As they count pigeons together on the park bench, observing the birds with surprising care, she reads books aloud to him, beginning with Camus’ The Plague. Given that that book is one which first awakened me to a world with questions for which I had no good answers— and therefore have lived with for my life —I was specially intrigued to see what the story would do with the weight of Camus’ work. How would this man with a “fallow mind,” essentially untended for the years of his life, respond to one of France’s greatest novelists who was also a philosopher?

But the best philosophy, like the best stories, always grows out of things that matter to ordinary people in ordinary places. Even children know that, which is why the most gifted teachers never teach “down” to little people because they know that even five year-olds are sometimes perplexed, wondering about why things are as they are, having their own honest questions wanting honest answers. And Camus is like that, gifted story-teller that he was, if we have ears to hear.

The story ends with a smile, choosing a different way to finish than most French films I know— not full of anguish, despair, or heartbreak, but with loves and longings tenderly satisfied. The whole world has not been made right, but that cannot be, even in a very good film. Rather this is a story in which humanness is its heart, our glory and our ruin twined together— the way it is in your life, and mine. And as the credits roll, this poem is read, beautifully, artfully reflecting on what we have seen, and why it matters.

It’s not a typical love affair
But “love” and “tenderness”
Both are there
Named after a daisy
She lived amidst words
Surrounded by adjectives
In green fields of verbs
Some force you to yield
But she with soft art
Passed through my hard shield
And into my heart
Not always are love stories
Just made of love
Love is not named
But it’s love just the same…
This is no typical love affair
I met her on a bench in my local square
She made a little stir, tiny like a bird
With her gentle feathers
She was surrounded by words
Some as common as myself
She gave me books, two or three
Their pages have come alive for me
Don’t die now,
You’ve still time, just wait
It’s not the hour, my little flower
Give me some more of you
More of the life in you
Not always are love stories
Just made of love
Sometimes love is not named
But it’s love just the same.

Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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