Film Review: Beatocello's Umbrella

Highly worthwhile study of one amazing Renaissance man who’s truly making a difference in Southeast Asia.

Living today in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is something akin to a living saint. His name is Beat Richner and he is a national hero, as well as the subject of Georges Gachot's documentary Beatocello's Umbrella. There are polymaths and then some, but Richner, a pediatric doctor, author, illustrator, cellist and performance artist, stretches the definition of that word in every imaginable way.

Originating in Switzerland, Richner has managed to combine his love of music and curing people in a spectacular way. He began by performing in the streets while practicing medicine and continues this dual activity today, where his fund-raising efforts through concertizing have founded five pediatric hospitals in Cambodia that have treated millions of desperately poor children.

Gachot has been following Richner since 1996, and his film is a loving, straightforward portrait of the man. We see him today, at 64, overweight, balding and somewhat priestly, going about his grueling seven-day-a-week rounds of his hospitals, and even meeting the country's king at a new hospital's dedication, dressed in the same cheap, ill-fitting suit he always pulls out for formal occasions. This lifelong bachelor is anything but materialistic, as his duly awestruck employees recount his refusal to dine with big shots in five-star restaurants, preferring instead a simple roadside café where he enjoys a solitary cigarette. And yet, Richter himself worries about becoming caught up in material wants and losing his creative side, as all he ever thinks about is how to raise funds for his hospitals, which not only dole out medical care but money for food for their patients.

Gachot also includes footage of Richner in his youth, performing in Europe in the 1970s; the thin, handsome, elegantly turned-out young man in mime makeup, singing "The Beggar's Song" while he sonorously plies his cello, is in stark physical contrast to what he is today. His staff, the most expressive interviewees in the film, marvel at this evolution and how Richner inspires them to work even harder. The doc is a tearjerker of the most honest kind, whether it's these dedicated medicos who admit to being ashamed of their own country, as a foreigner had to be the one to extend aid to the suffering, or the grateful patients who talk about barely eking out a daily existence in the potato fields while dreaming of an education.