"Become yourself. Then, God and the devil don't matter," says a character in "Meetings With Remarkable Men," a film about the early wanderings of G. I. Gurdjieff.
Remarkable men; remarkable film. It would have to be, since it attempts to express in visual terms the very nonvisual act of becoming. It is a job that calls for the likes of Peter Brook, director of the undirectable, and sure enough, Brook directs and co-authors this picture, now at the Inner Circle.
Using the logical metaphor of a quest through the deserts of Asia and Egypt, Brook holds the interest without too much hype or technical stunting. At the very beginning he demonstrates his ability to achieve suspense with the simplest means. Afghan shepherds hold a contest to make music that will echo in the adjacent mountains. Within minutes he has us all holding our breath listening for those stones to sing.
He also uses, as is his custom, several non-actors whose formal, somewhat wooden speech compels belief. Even the mysterious Terence Stamp, one of the most intensely concentrated actors working, submerges himself here for the sake of simplicity.
Young Gurdjieff himself is played by Dragan Maksimovic, a Yugoslavian who had to learn English for the part. This is typical of Brook, who gets his British stage troupe to rise above the need for translation when performing in exotic places.
At times, however, "Meetings" does seem to take itself a mite too seriously, with its travelogue adventures and philosophical one-liners: "Yes, Professor, thinking and knowing are quite different," or "Knowing happens directly, when not even a thought stands between the thing you know, and you."
The picture may not be of much use to those hoping to learn more about Gurdjieff's ideas, for it fails to indicate what I take to be the basic dilemma of the Gurdjieff follower:
If you permit yourself absolutely everything you desire, you become absolutely the slave of your desires. If you put yourself absolutely in the power of someone else, you achieve the freedom of absolute detachment. But what if that all-powerful someone else is himself in the process of becoming detached?
In his teaching days, it appears that Gurdjieff demanded everything of his people and in the same breath repudiated his own demands. The young man in the film still has faith in answers.
The final sequences showing some Gurdjieffian dances, often resembling tai-chi, are not only authentic but fascinating. They were staged by Jeanne de Salzmann, the co-author and one of the master's most trusted aides.
A most original and watchable movie, even to the nonsense about the buried scrolls and the lost monastery. One wonders whether James Hilton could have read Gurdjieff's book before embarking on "Lost Horizon."