If the cinema more than any other art is a barometer of current concerns, hopes, preoccupations, anxieties and aspirations, then the fact that there has been a spate (well, a small spate) of cloister films is significant. I do not mean dramas in monasteries, of which there are many juicy examples that tell us much more about humans than about God, but documentaries, for want of a better word, that use the camera to go inside cloistered spaces quite outside our experience and which are yet part of our history and culture. Here are some of them:
- Into Great Silence (Philip Gröning 2005) – La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, France
- The Presentation Sisters (Tacita Dean 2005) – convent near Cork, Ireland
- No Greater Love (Michael White 2009) – nunnery in London
- Jennifer (Nina Danino 2015) – Carmelite monastery in Ronda, Spain
- three slow-TV documentaries (screened in 2017 on the BBC) about life in the British monasteries of Downside, Pluscarden and Belmont.
The outstanding film in this group is Into Great Silence (above), for the making of which Gröning had to wait 14 years. The result therefore has a premeditated feel from a long engagement with the idea but also a quality of delight in what he found to film once he was inside the monastery. It also has a weight to it from its 2½ hours in length, ‘bleeding chunks’ of cloister, church and cell time.
This reflection is sparked by reading ‘Oneness’, a collection of essays edited by Stephen Platten (SCM Press 2017) about the rediscovery of monasticism in Britain, and linked by the editor to Shepherds Law in Northumberland. Shepherds Law is as much eremitical as monastic (i.e. more hermit than monk), as far as I can gather, and is being rooted in its place by the creation of a remarkable set of buildings, a work still in progress (see photographs on Google Images). The inspiration for the site came from Brother Harold Palmer, and both he and the site already appear to be becoming places of pilgrimage.
In this country religious faith is on the decline (it is alleged) and the church, like so much of our common life, seems to be suffering from a loss of confidence. The rediscovery of the monastic virtues offers a new, more encouraging side to the way we live now, and it is good that the cinema has a part in this.
For a fuller discussion of cloister films, see my book ‘The New Filmgoer’s Guide to God’ chapter 9, available from Troubador Publishing and on Amazon.