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'The Rule': Documentary Looks at Newark Private School Run by Monks

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There is an surprisingly jarring observation in the documentary "The Rule" by one of the monks of Newark Abbey, who operate St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark, N.J.

"There's a subculture in the big, center city," the monk says as he walks the streets of central Newark. "This is where the losers live. The person who is going to make something of himself, they're [sic] going to get out."

The Benedictine monks of Newark themselves have stayed in their inner-city monastery through good times, violent times, changing times, and bad times. They are far from being losers with their mission helping some 550 students, mostly African-American or Hispanic, escape a hopeless future in the chronically troubled city.

The monks are doing something right, as nearly all of the school's graduates go on to college, and 85 percent of them finish, we're told. Part of the secret is the film's title, which refers to Rule of St. Benedict, a set of moral guidelines originally laid down by the founder of the religious order for communities in 6th century Italy. 

Filmmakers Jerome Bongiorno and Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno frame St. Benedict's and The Rule as holding lessons for improving inner-city education beyond the school's walls. That's a bit open to debate, though the monks speak with confidence and conviction about the problems of inner-city youths and how they can be solved.

The 90-minute film has been in limited release and is premiering on PBS stations this week (check local listings). Some reviewers have concluded that the documentary is not very journalistically rigorous, coming off as a recruitment or fundraising production for the prep school. I have to concur, to a degree. The filmmakers have some great footage, but the film could have benefited from more of a cinema verité approach and fewer of the short, annoying animations they use (with sound effects) just to amplify a point a speaker is making.

THE RULE 2.5 min Promo from Jerome Bongiorno on Vimeo.

While we hear a lot from the monks (who, again, come across as idealistic but tough and clear-eyed), there are only limited voices from students. (More-senior students run the morning assemblies, where they only have to raise their hands to quiet everyone.)  And there's no discussion of tuition or admissions, though the school's Web site indicates that there is generous financial aid available.

Still, the film has several saving graces in terms of capturing colorful or poignant moments. When students are preparing for a weeklong hike on the Appalachian Trail, the Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, the headmaster known as Father Ed, urges them to be careful on the challenging terrain. "The drop won't hurt you, but the sudden stop on the other end will," he says.

The monks focus on their prayers, moments of reflection, and chores such as cleaning the bathrooms even as sirens, souped-up car stereos, and other noises blare on Newark streets just outside their walls. 

And the animation is helpful when the filmmakers are telling the history of St. Benedict and the school. They frankly present the story of how the monks of Newark Abbey dealt with the riots and racial transformation of Newark in the 1960s and early 70s.

"The monks [in the 1960s] were afraid of this African-American awakening," one of today's monks says. 

Some wanted to move the abbey and school to the suburbs, but they didn't have the necessary votes to do so. The school closed briefly in the early 1970s, but it reopened and it has been making its mark ever since.

One could take issue with the monk's observation cited above that the inner city is the refuge for losers who won't or can't escape. He should know that some people—like the monks of Newark Abbey—stick around to try to make things better.

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