THE STORY – An aspiring hospital chaplain begins a yearlong residency in spiritual care and discovers she must look deep within herself to successfully tend to her patients.
THE CAST – Margaret ‘Mati’ Engel
THE TEAM – Luke Lorentzen (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
Being a person others can lean on can be exhausting. The significance of this kind of volunteerism and aid can have massive effects. And yet, hope and care persist. Luke Lorentzen (“Midnight Family“) returns to the Sundance Film Festival with “A Still Small Voice,” a documentary examining the beneficial role of chaplaincy while reminding us that even those who bear the load of others’ pain need support, too. It follows a young chaplain on her way to completing her residency, offering support while coming to terms with her capacity for this line of work. Lorentzen’s film is an illuminating documentary on how pain carries weight on us all. It asks big questions, studies the human psyche, and offers hope.
Mati is in the process of completing her yearlong residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. She’s a chaplain in the spiritual care department, offering emotional support and therapeutic, spiritual, and assistive care to various patients and sometimes hospital workers. Within these walls, grief and distress can be a beast, and it’s people like Mati who make a difference. Their workload is replenished with scheduled meetings, where open group discussions take place and where chaplains can seek further advice and counseling. Although their hands are full, their work also coincides with the dangerous early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Throughout the film, Lorentzen welcomes the viewer to think about the undeniable and recognize how humans can cope, reset, and have patient compassion for one another.
As Mati makes her way through the halls, going from one patient to the next, Lorentzen makes sure to spend time and develop an indirect relationship between the subject and the camera. We see an ill patient with a relatively optimistic outlook on her prognosis, citing the strong “still small voice” in her head. On this note, Mati continues her commitment to counsel and comfort in the next room. Sometimes, the work comes in the form of a tough conversation. During one check-in call, Mati speaks to someone who recently lost a loved one. As Mati reassures her of the validity of all these cascading, helpless feelings, she’s comfortable asking Mati what her beliefs are on mortality from a religious perspective. Lorentzen carefully places us in the care of his camera as it sits, watches, and listens. At this point, Lorentzen sits on Mati’s response, one that comes from both her unique perception of death and the one considered by the Jewish faith. She finally ends on the most bittersweet encapsulation of the matter. “Death is okay,” Mati explains to her, a resounding beat of empathy in an otherwise hopeless moment. And it’s in these intimate moments of counsel that make the film feel so imperfect and fragile, as humans are.
In place of any significant conflict, “A Still Small Voice” smartly confronts the tiresome differences found when a group of helping hands gather to support others while finding the right way to communicate real frustrations within themselves. With a sharply observant eye, the film follows how the weight of the workday sometimes comes home to you. What do we do when we’ve been exhausted from aiding others and need to nourish ourselves? How much emotional grief can we bear to stand before we reach a breaking point? Who can we turn to when we’ve used all our social outlets? Lorentzen doesn’t have all the answers, but he sure does a captivating job of moving an audience to contemplate these things.
There’s a winning aspect to “A Still Small Voice.” So much grief on film can be depressing and unrelenting. Lorentzen’s film doesn’t linger too long on the painful moments to push us away. Instead, he imparts the melancholic with the optimistic. Mati’s stunning gestures of aid are put to the forefront, and we’re left astonished, quite frankly. Lorentzen’s documentary is a survey of life, death, and care. Always truthful, never over-delivering. His film is a memorable work of care as nourishment, and he most definitely deserves some praise yet again.