Inmates Go Buddhist in The Dhamma Brothers


What happens when you put a group of maximum-security prison inmates through the rigors of a 10-day Buddhism boot camp? This is the intriguing premise of The Dhamma Brothers, a slow-moving documentary that follows a group of hard-boiled but thoughtful Alabama prisoners—most of whom are serving life for murder—as they learn to meditate and follow Buddha’s Five Precepts in the “monastic setting” of a linoleum-floored jailhouse gym. The movie is at its best when the inmates are simply set in front of the camera and allowed to talk about their crimes and hopes for sorting out their lives, even from behind bars; they’re far more eloquent than the superintendents and counselors who keep watch over them. But the film’s flabby, rambling narrative structure, which introduces too many bit players without giving enough background on either prison or meditation, prevents us from getting a good sense of who these men are, how they change over the course of the film, or what effect Buddhism really has on them. First-time director Jenny Phillips, a psychotherapist, made the questionable decision to shoot cheesy, half-assed re-enactments of the inmates’ crimes, and the unquestionably poor decision to undergird the much-vaunted “noble silence” of meditation with voice-overs and mood music. There’s no doubt that the Brothers are a compelling bunch, but their story isn’t well served here.