At one point in her biographical documentary on French philosopher Simone Weil, An Encounter with Simone Weil, director Julia Haslett reveals that she’s intent on finding a way to “situate Simone” for a contemporary audience, a tricky task given the ways in which Weil’s life and philosophy were so tightly intertwined. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Paris, Weil was an academic prodigy, but her acute sensitivity to the sufferings of others and her deeply held Marxist convictions led her at several points in her life to abandon her teaching job to join the class struggle.
It’s precisely this sense of compassion that leads Haslett to Weil in the first place. Still healing from her father’s suicide when she was in her teens, the adult Haslett is troubled by the suffering she sees in the world and, closer to home, in her brother’s bouts of depression. When she stumbles across a line by Weil (“Attention is the rarest form of generosity”), a palpable degree of wisdom in the words inspires her to seek out more of Weil’s thoughts. As she confesses in voiceover, her quest to read everything Weil ever wrote—most of which was published posthumously in massive, multi-volume tomes—leads her on a quest to locate Weil in the modern world somehow.