Monasteries and slow television are a natural fit. That was proved by three programmes on BBC4 shown over three nights in October (24th, 25th and 26th). The three-hour series was called Retreat: Meditations from a Monastery and gave us a look inside the three Benedictine monasteries of Downside (Somerset), Pluscarden (Moray, Scotland), and Belmont (Herefordshire). There was special emphasis on work as a form of prayer – activities like joinery, garment-making, bee-keeping and painting an icon. This made sense in television terms because these are visual activities, when sitting meditating is less so, unless the viewer is capable of an empathetic stillness, or unless the film finds ways of getting inside a monk’s head, not to my mind impossible. You need to find visual equivalences for stillness and emptying the mind.
Big pluspoint: no stifling music, except for the monks’ chanting in church.
In 2014 I published ‘The New Filmgoers Guide to God’ and included a section on the current fashion for taking the camera into the monastery:
“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.”
The outstanding example in this genre is Matthias Gröning’s Into Great Silence from 2005, made at La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble in France, and of an imposing length of 2 1/2 hours, a tiny but potent window into the spiritual world that the monastery is able to create.
The third of the three BBC television programmes did deliver a coup de cinéma. Father Alex is shown creating an icon: drawing the outline, applying gold leaf, and painting it. The programme ends with him taking the finished picture into the abbey church to place it on a side altar. However, despite our own impulse to see the finished result, we are denied a proper view of it, but are instead given glimpses of it in a mirror, or from a distorting side angle in order to whet our appetite. We see it placed in the chapel in a long-distance view. Then we get a sideways close-up of Father Alex asperging it, i.e. sprinkling it very lightly with water, in order to bless it. He then lays it horizontally to kiss it and puts it back in place. Only now does the camera look at it full on, but we are still denied a view because Father Alex’s backside is between us and the painting. Then it comes: the monk kneels and we see revealed his icon of the Archangel Michael, glowing richly with its blue and gold, and showing a piercingly handsome face. It is breathtaking, and this was a magical way of bringing the film to a close.
Executive Producer: Nikki Parrott
Producer/Director: Luke Korzun Martin
Production Company: Tigerlily Productions
The television programmes are still available to watch on BBC iPlayer, till around the third or fourth week of November.
You can buy ‘The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’ on Amazon.