One (2005) Movie Review
As the filmmakers set out to tackle their first movie-making project, they had little idea what it was they wanted to do. But they had a list of 20 questions and the names of a few spiritual types they hoped they might get to talk to. So they went out and bought a camera, and started making some phone calls.
The underlying questions that form the basis of One are the same questions that haunt most people through life. Is there a God? What happens after we die? And of course: What is the meaning of life?
To their own surprise (and credit), first-time filmmakers Ward Powers and Scott Carter actually managed to round up an impressive cast of spiritual leaders to help them find some answers. From Buddhist scholar and former monk Robert Thurman and Nobel Prize-nominee Thich Nhat Hahn to Be Here Now author Ram Dass, Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating, and Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, spiritual minds from all the world's major traditions lent their insights to the project. They even found a few atheists along the way, as well as some general wackos. But by and large, much of their commentary is deeply fascinating.
While the amateurism of this documentary is charming in its own right, One suffers from a staggering lack of focus that often detracts mightily from the otherwise profound (although sometimes absurd) commentaries propounded by its many subjects. Perhaps feeling that his film needed some kind of overarching plot to propel it forward, Powers elected to make his own journey -- that of making a movie for the first time -- the central journey of the film.
Unfortunately, Powers' first adventure in the movie business just isn't a very interesting journey. Sure, it was probably frustrating for Powers to have to learn to use a video camera moments before his first interview, but that's not our problem. We came here to for spiritual knowledge. Then, as if to hedge his bet, he throws in an additional narrative element in which a guy wakes up in the morning, walks through a town, and eventually finds his way to a stream where he gets in a canoe and paddles. This sequence appears bit by bit over the course of the movie's running time. But it, too, detracts from the film's focus.
It's clear from the incessant voice-overs that cut into every single minute of the documentary that the original intent was to go out and interview some people, and that there wasn't much more to it. And it's hard not to wish the director had stuck with that idea. Power's narration seems less intended to underscore the significance of his subjects' contributions than to reassure his audience that all of this chatter is leading somewhere.
In the end, however, all the talk does lead somewhere. It just takes more than 80 percent of the film to get there. Either through happy accident or intelligent editing (I'm hoping it's the latter.), all of the interviews eventually begin to converge upon a single idea: That all of us, and everything, even God, or the idea of God, are inextricably linked together as one great universal being. With remarkably few exceptions, these great spiritual minds from the most diverse faiths -- including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism -- indefatigably agree that the superficial differences of religious conception pale in comparison to the realization that the every being universe is one close-knit family with an obligation to love and protect every other being in it.
Shortly after arriving at the great conclusion after which the movie is obviously named, the film closes. But not before Powers manages to reiterate for us the story of how he came from a suburb in Michigan with no filmmaking experience to put this whole thing together. And yeah, we get that. But we also get something more, and it almost seems like the filmmakers missed it, which leaves us wishing the narrator would just shut up and let us enjoy the moment.
In all, One is an amusingly naïve film that manages, in spite of itself, to deliver an experience of relative significance. For its collection of interviews alone, it's a must-see for anyone seriously compelled by spiritual contemplation and religious study. Just try to have patience with the narrative.