Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life.

For the last couple of months, I have been meaning to write about The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life, a documentary by German filmmaker Zita Erffa that appeared on the European festival circuit a couple of years ago. I discovered the film late last year when I chanced upon the trailer on YouTube. This summer, I was pleased to learn that The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is now available for download on Vimeo. In July, I was finally able to watch the film and I resolved to write something of a review, but, with summer travels and other projects, I only recently got around to putting my thoughts into publishable form. At the very least, I hope that what I write here will gain a few more viewers for a film that deserves a wider audience.

The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life chronicles director Zita Erffa's efforts to reconcile with her younger brother László after a long period of estrangement. The children of German diplomats with noble roots, László and Zita enjoyed a privileged and cosmopolitan upbringing: a collage of family photos and clips from home videos show the siblings growing up in Namibia, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia as their parents moved from one diplomatic posting to another. Despite these frequent moves, the siblings would return to Germany every summer to spend time with relatives and to attend summer camps run by the Legion of Christ and its female branch, the Consagradas. Though Zita and László always enjoyed the camps, the director relates that she and her brother shared a discomfort for what they regarded as the more 'sectarian' aspects of the Legion; as a result, they refused to get more deeply involved with the group even as some of their closest friends became Legionaries and Consagradas. Zita thus reacted with shock – and a sense of betrayal – when László entered the Legionaries' novitiate at the age of 19. For the next seven years, Zita's contact with her brother was limited to rare visits and telephone calls and to letters which, in principle, his superiors were permitted to read. After studies in filmmaking in Munich and Mexico City, Zita eventually found the courage to contact her brother with an unusual proposition: she would come to visit him at the Legion's seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut, making a film about his life and seeking to come to terms with the decision that marked a rupture in a once-close relationship. Despite the Legionaries' reputation for secrecy, the director's request was granted.
In The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life, the viewer follows Zita Erffa to Cheshire, where she spends several days observing the Legion's seminarians as they eat, pray, go to class, play soccer, and perform chores like folding laundry and helping out in the kitchen. For Erffa, Cheshire seems strange and a bit quirky – as the director admits, the 1960s aesthetic of the seminary made her think of a Wes Anderson movie – but the seminarians prove to be surprisingly normal and well-adjusted. Interviewing her brother, Zita comes to understand that László's decision was almost as surprising to him as it was to her, inspired by a sudden moment of clarity in prayer that overcame his earlier reluctance to consider joining the Legionaries. Zita also comes to realize that, for László, the Legion provided a sense of stability that contrasted with the siblings' somewhat nomadic childhood. Through her conversations with her brother and what she learns about his life at Cheshire, Zita reconciles with László and, as the director puts it in press materials accompanying the release of the film, "I get my brother back – finally."

Though he is only mentioned in passing in the film, Legion founder Marcial Maciel represents the elephant in the room in The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life. Denounced for the sexual abuse of dozens of boys and young men – including many students and seminarians of the Legion – Maciel was removed from public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2006 and ordered to devote his remaining years to prayer and penance. Other revelations of misconduct followed Maciel's death in 2008, including admissions that he had fathered several children with different women and had embezzled funds from the Legion to support a lavish double life. A subsequent apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ brought about reforms within the congregation as well as a public apology for Maciel's crimes.
In an interview following the release of her film, Zita Erffa emphasizes that Maciel "was not my main target" and that "this was a story about my brother." Indeed, placing more emphasis on Maciel's crimes would diminish the compelling human story that the director sets out to tell, a story that ultimately has nothing to do with the Legion's disgraced founder. Even so, Maciel's influence cannot be ignored: there is a poignant moment late in the film where László admits that the revelations regarding Maciel made his decision to enter the Legion more difficult, since he recognized that the Legionaries "were not very popular" and he had doubts about joining a congregation beset by scandal. The interaction between the siblings also makes it clear that László's decision was painful not only for Zita but also for his parents and his three younger siblings, and that the family was not upset by the idea of László becoming a priest but rather by his decision to become a Legionary in particular, given the congregation's reputation for rigidity and strict control of its members as well as its checkered public image.

For her part, Zita Erffa believes that the Legion's internal structures and culture of "blind obedience" enabled Maciel to conceal his crimes for decades. Nevertheless, the director also commends the process of reform within the Legion – a process that made her film possible, insofar as the Legionaries welcomed the filmmakers, in Erffa's words, "to show that they were not monsters, that they were not all like Maciel, and that they are changing." Though the director has emphasized that the Legionaries had no control over the editing of the film, at certain moments in The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life it becomes clear that Erffa and cinematographer Bruno Santamaría Razo were allowed to film at Cheshire precisely because the Legion saw the project as an opportunity for good PR; indeed, the title of the film comes from an apparently spontaneous remark made on camera by a Legionary priest, who breaks the fourth wall to urge viewers considering the priesthood to "come to Cheshire," because joining the Legion is "the best thing you could ever do with your life."
The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is not really about the Legionaries of Christ, but rather about how sibling relationships evolve over time as individual choices and commitments diverge and come into conflict. The film devotes particular attention to László's evolution from a teenager who vowed that he would never join the Legion to a committed member of the congregation. (Since the release of the film, László Erffa has been ordained to the priesthood and now serves the Legion's apostolates in Germany.) Though she does not speak about it on camera, Zita has also changed in her journey to adulthood. The film emphasizes the siblings' shared Catholic upbringing, including home video footage from Zita's first communion; yet, as the director acknowledges in an interview with a German online magazine, she now identifies as an agnostic and has distanced herself from institutional religion. Near the end of the film, László reminds his sister that they both "realize that there is more than what is around" and that "we are both on our way," but the scene ends before the audience is able to hear Zita react to these observations. I would have welcomed more discussion in the film about how Zita's personal commitments may have changed over time, particularly as a counterpoint to what we learn about László's own development.

As a film about sibling relationships, The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is also about the bonds of shared childhood experiences that transcend the differences that can separate adults. The rapprochement between Zita and László proceeds through a series of encounters between the two siblings, moving from an awkward initial meeting in an office at the seminary to an interview in the woods to an evening chat in László's bedroom. The two discuss difficult and sometimes uncomfortable topics, from the pain that László's abrupt departure caused to his family to their disagreements regarding Church teaching, but they also rediscover a sense of closeness expressed by gentle teasing and repartee. (For example, when Zita reminds her brother that he played priest as a child, László recalls that Zita would play Päpstin, because "you had to be above me.") The fact that the final interview between the siblings occurs as they both sit on László's bed seems like a deliberate directorial choice weighted with symbolism. Earlier in the film, Zita recalls that, as children sharing the same bedroom, she and László often had whispered conversations after lights out; in the shared, private language of siblings, the two invented a verb to describe these nighttime chats: bliblablublieren. Reunited in László's room in Cheshire, the siblings once again engage in a kind of bliblablublieren, a tangible sign that, despite all that separates them, they have finally rekindled the connection that they seemed to have lost. The film's sensitive portrayal of the relationship between the director and her brother makes The Best Thing You Do with Your Life worth watching, and the same quality makes me hope that we will see more from Zita Erffa.


At 9/30/2020 9:23 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Thanks for the review and the recommendation!


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