It feels appropriate in the season of Advent to refer to the current vogue for monastery films – whose inmates’ principal goal in life is to wait upon God. Here is what I write in THE NEW FILMGOER’S GUIDE TO GOD:
“If the certainties of a rock-solid belief in the Almighty no longer seem appealing that is one reason why indirections are an attractive route to the heart of religious cinema, as if it was a maze whose centre was hidden, full of false turnings and dead ends, as if we were to keep running into emptiness. Yet there is no doubt that stories of faith and hope still inspire large audiences. What is missing is the sense of a guiding hand, of an imaginative divine universe; in effect we have become disconnected. This only makes it the more extraordinary that in the last few years, documentaries about monks and nuns have commanded a small but committed audience as if a glimpse into the monastic universe offered some key, if vicarious, insight into the proper form of human living.
“It must quickly be acknowledged that nunneries have attracted film-makers for the last sixty years, offering a wonderfully potent mix for melodrama: hothouse relationships, ridiculous costumes, suppressed desire, steamy ecstasy and fruitful hopes. The Devils (chapter 1) has already been mentioned, but other examples are Angels of Sin (Bresson 1943), Black Narcissus (Powell and Pressburger 1946), Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz 1961), La Religieuse (Jacques Rivette 1965), Dark Habits (Pedro Almodóvar 1983), Thérèse (Alain Cavalier, 1996, a fine film about Thérèse de Lisieux), The Calling (Jan Dunn 2009), and no doubt there are others. This is an illustrious roster of European directors and in breaking free of the censorship that overhung the film industries of the 1930s, they have behaved like someone in a sweet shop who has just come off a diet, or like a group of men on a stag night roused to hysteria by the arrival of a busload of nuns. Roland Barthes commented wryly on the risks involved in filming a convent full of nuns: ‘We know what they become in the director’s eye.’
“These films tell us a lot about human desire, but offer few or no insights into the attractions of the cloistered life. But digital technology which allows the camera to run and run at negligible cost has now produced three remarkable documentaries: No Greater Love (Michael Whyte 2009) about a nunnery in Notting Hill, London, The Presentation Sisters (Tacita Dean 2005) about a convent in Cork, and most remarkably Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning 2005) about the Grande Chartreuse monastery near Grenoble in the French Alps. The cloistered life is lived on a different plane of time, and long takes in the camera allow the material first to be captured and then shaped in the cutting room to honour the ‘stature of waiting’ (in Bill Vanstone’s phrase).”
I then go on to write about these films.
For details of the book see: http://bit.ly/TroubadorPress