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By David Finkelstein | November 4, 2011

“Retreat” is an experimental portrait of Amy Miller, an American woman who is a Buddhist nun in the Mahayana tradition. Miller runs the Milarepa Center in Barnet, Vermont. However, we don’t find out any of these facts until the very end of Daniel Hess and Katya Yakubov’s appealing and enjoyable film, because they don’t follow standard documentary forms such as interviews, voice-over commentary, or linear sequences.

Instead, we see a portrait of life in the retreat center through a collage of fragments: short shots which show residents and visitors praying and meditating, but also shopping in a supermarket, cleaning, counseling visitors, and socializing. The sound mix, of overlapping fragments of conversation, records ongoing dialogue which mixes philosophy and religion with everyday chatter. This seems like a very informal, relaxed version of Buddhism.

Hess and Yakubov’s approach, with its casual inclusion of all aspects of daily life, including, occasionally, the filmmakers and the process of making the film itself, seems entirely within the spirit of Buddhism and its holistic view. The film’s primary subject becomes the texture of life in the retreat. The tone of the household is highly conscious and mindful about courteous, cooperative living, but it is also relaxed and friendly.

Daniel Hess’s blues guitar music, in particular, contributes to the tone and continuity of the film. The style of the music reminded me of ordinary rural American life, but it is also repetitive and minimalist, which matches the meditation practice at the retreat. “Retreat” not only introduces the viewer to some American Buddhists, it gives the viewer a small taste of the texture and feeling of the Buddhist approach to living.

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