‘Her Socialist Smile’ Review: Helen Keller, Radical

Helen Keller is one of the closest things the United States has to a secular saint. Born in 1880, she lost her hearing and her sight before she was 2 years old. With the help of her equally legendary teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to read, to write, to sign and to speak. Her writing was beautiful, opening to readers a window into her world.

She lived a long life, dying in 1968 at the age of 87. And she spent much of that life espousing socialism. The new documentary “Her Socialist Smile,” written, directed and shot by John Gianvito, is a fascinating and challenging exploration of Keller’s political thought.

Gianvito’s formal approach is a species of leftist avant-gardism. He begins the movie with a beautiful color view of a tree, its branches covered in snow. The image switches to black and white; the narrator, Carolyn Forché, fiddles with a music stand upon which she places the texts she’s going to read. Long passages of Keller’s writings appear onscreen, which the viewer reads in silence. When Forché narrates, the onscreen image is related to the natural world that so enchanted Keller. We learn of Keller’s high regard for “The Communist Manifesto” while watching a slug crawl on a mossy rock.

The approach, which one supposes can be called “dialectical,” is not without wit; one piece of archival footage, detailing the American Legion’s destruction of leftist literature, is from an early iteration of “Fox News.” (The newsreel one.)

Despite the movie’s sometimes haughty, preaching-to-the-choir approach, lay viewers should not be too deterred. Much of Keller’s thought is today echoed in progressive circles that are now more than peripheral to the mainstream, and it’s fascinating to consider.

Her Socialist Smile
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.

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