Film Review: Mari Bonnemaison’s “Blessed Unrest” — Captivating Glimpses of the Struggles and Growth of a Creative Artist
By Ralph P. Locke
This award-winning documentary offers precious glimpses of what music, or artistic activity, can mean in the life of a highly talented individual.
Blessed Unrest, an imaginative and thought-provoking new film directed by Mari Bonnemaison, made the rounds of numerous international film festivals in 2022 and early 2023. For example, it won for Best Documentary at the Berlin International Art Film Festival, the Hispanic International Film Festival, and the New York Independent Cinema Awards.
Bonnemaison’s captivating film has now been made available for streaming for one week (through April 22, 2023), and I recommend it highly.
Blessed Unrest is a one-hour documentary about Michael Dodds, an immensely talented composer, performer, and scholar who has taught at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts since 2005. But it is that and more, thanks to the artistry of director Bonnemaison and a substantial team of collaborators, including veteran actress Rosemary Harris, who at one point recites a powerful statement by the great choreographer Martha Graham about the state of “blessed unrest” that feeds artistic creativity: “a queer divine dissatisfaction … that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” (Graham’s phrase “blessed unrest” has been used by other writers, such as by Paul Hawken, in his best-selling 2007 book about the worldwide movement to halt damage to the environment and to foster progressive social change.)
Dodds — who attended my musicology seminars at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music — has a fascinating life story, starting with his childhood years, which he spent in a rural village in Peru. He and his family had moved there from California so that his father, a trained physician and a deeply religious individual, could provide medical care to the local population.
As he was growing up, Dodds quickly revealed great musical talent. He also became friendly with a girl in Lima, Mari Bonnemaison, who, as it turns out, would become a prominent film director. In recent years, she decided to make this film about the life and development of her childhood friend, who had become an accomplished pedagogue, church-music director, and composer.
The result — made possible by an extensive crowd-funding campaign — is a film that combines beautiful and evocative footage of the Peruvian rain forest; photos (and some home movies) of the Dodds family in the village; a few enacted scenes (clearly differentiated from the rest — there is no intent to deceive); recent interviews with members of Dodds’s family and with chorus members and orchestra players whom we also hear singing and playing; and vividly filmed segments made out in nature in North Carolina.
There are powerful emotional moments along the way, as we learn how Dodds came to terms with a traumatic event from his childhood and with more recent family crises as well, and as we experience with him the joy he finds in creating, and then conducting, a four-movement choral symphony based on Psalm 145, “I Will Exalt You, My God the King.”
Along the way, Dodds offers personal thoughts about the relationship, for him, between religious belief and artistic inspiration. He reflects on certain individuals who helped guide him, most notably the Bach and Handel authority Alfred Mann (at the Eastman School of Music), who clearly became a kind of second father to him. Dodds has, since receiving his doctorate, presented scholarly papers and published articles in journals on important aspects of musical composition and performance in the Baroque era.
Most of all, one gains a sense, as one rarely does on film, of what drives an individual to do creative work, and what helps him or her gain the necessary self-confidence.
For a two-minute video that gives a good sense of what the film has to offer, click here.
A ticket allowing you to videostream Blessed Unrest is $14 and can be purchased at https://riverrunfilm.com/events/blessedunrest/. Once you click on it, you have three days to watch the film — in case you want to take a break in the middle, or come back to watch again (or show someone else!) this or that particularly intriguing portion. The film ends with excerpts from Dodds’s choral symphony, splendidly performed by vocal soloists and a fine orchestra including members of the Winston-Salem Symphony, all led by the confident, alert, yet, it seems, utterly serene composer.
In short, Blessed Unrest offers precious glimpses of what music, or artistic activity, can mean in the life of a highly talented individual. And the sumptuous cinematography and superb editing add their own comments in this regard.
Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback; the second, also as an e-book. Ralph Locke also contributes to American Record Guide and to the online arts-magazines New York Arts, Opera Today, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. His articles have appeared in major scholarly journals, in Oxford Music Online (Grove Dictionary), and in the program books of major opera houses, e.g., Santa Fe (New Mexico), Wexford (Ireland), Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, and the Bavarian State Opera (Munich). He is on the editorial board of a recently founded and intentionally wide-ranging open-access periodical: Music & Musical Performance: An International Journal.