No Greater Love

No Greater Love


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

You don’t have to be an atheist to wonder what it is about nuns, shutting themselves away, praying and chanting, denying the pleasures of life for the love of a higher being who may well be the figment of someone else’s imagination. What is their relevance in a post nuclear, terror fixated, politically unstable, credit crunching wasteworld where taxation and rendition and bad wars and greedy bankers and overpaid celebrities and Americans abroad dominate the opinionated chatterese of suburban bellyachers? And, of course, let’s not forget, paedophiles, suicide bombers, internet viruses and reality TV.

Michael Whyte’s film on the Carmelite nuns in the monastery of the Most Holy Trinity in Notting Hill refrains from preachy criticism, or probing questions on subjects as diverse as motherhood and personal hygiene. The camera is respectful at all times, staying quiet and still, a silent witness to the silent order. These ladies are middle aged, or old. They talk of night prayer, the last of the day, as “preparing for death”. What with cooking, cleaning, gardening, making their own clothes and, believe it or not, dancing, there is much to do, while the discipline of the bells keeps them regularly on their knees.

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The documentary is beautifully photographed – Whyte doubles up as DoP and editor. He does not use a narrator. He does not speak when not spoken to. He does not probe. The fascination is visual, intellectual and emotional. Where is God? Where is love? Such questions hang like promises above the abyss. Why prayer?

A few select nuns, including the prioress, whose charm, humour and inquiring mind is a revelation, are interviewed, or, to be more precise, allowed to voice their thoughts. They talk of communion with God, as well as spending years in a void without knowledge of Him. Their honesty and intelligence is humbling. Death is “awesome”. The resurrection is “the meaning of life”. Silence “becomes music; there is a grace in it”. The true purpose is “to come face to face with yourself”.

Theirs is an island of serenity in London’s noisy metropolis. Despite using the internet to order tuna from Sainsbury's, their isolation is complete. Meanwhile, out in the garden, a black robed woman is wielding a chainsaw.

“God remains a mystery,” the prioress says. “And we have to live with that mystery.”

There is consistency in uncertainty. There is a dead nun in the coffin. There is snow falling and the sound of singing. Above the door in a corridor is written ETERNITY. On the polished floor, shoulder to shoulder, they pray. Silence embraces them.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2009
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Silent nuns speak.
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Director: Michael Whyte

Year: 2009

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: UK


EIFF 2009

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Into Great Silence