A documentary of nearly 1 hour 45 minutes that follows the lives of an order of devout nuns in a monastery, does not sound the most exciting of things to watch. Not exactly "Gone With the Wind" or "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", films incidentally that the nuns will never see in their TV-less surroundings. But I was in for a pleasant surprise! The documentary certainly proves to be entertaining, but in a more thoughtful way. The director Michael Whyte apparently spent ten years corresponding with the Most Holy Trinity monastery, in London's Notting Hill, home to the Discalced Order of Carmelite Nuns, before he was allowed in with the cameras. Whyte seems to be following in the footsteps of Philip Groning the director of "Into Great Silence", who had to wait 16 years before he was allowed to film the Carthusian monks inside the Grande Chartreuse monastery. In that film there is no narration whatsoever, unlike this film which is interspersed with short interviews with the monks.
In the film we watch the prayerful and devoted lives of the nuns in some detail. In their interviews it is apparent that they are very human, literate and good humoured. It is also crystal clear early on, that such a life of devotion would suit very few. The vows they solemnly take demand chastity, poverty and a life spent in solitude and prayer. Jesus speaking about it being "easier for a rich nan to go through the eye of a needle than to enter heaven", springs to mind. One nun talks about how she was made to finish her degree course at Cambridge, before her father would allow her into the monastery. Her father probably had some other career in mind for his bright daughter, but she received a much higher calling! We also see such scenes as nuns polishing a shining wooden floor, and wielding chainsaws in the garden. No matter what they are doing the habits remain on! The monastery has a wonderful look of austere cleanliness, which speaks of much hard work. Of course much time is spent in prayer and worship. The nuns have some very gifted singers amongst their number, and the singing is quite lovely. But it is not all work and prayer, as we see them dancing joyously together. Clearly the life does not mean you cannot have some innocent fun together.
The more of this documentary you watch, the more you realise how contented the nuns are with their lives. Some interesting questions are put to the nuns, one lead question being "Do you fear death". The answer is a thoughtfully answered no, and you believe her! These days the nuns do not have to fear rampaging Vikings, but there is something perhaps more dangerous and insidious that lurks just outside the monasteries cloistered walls. The monastery is in busy Notting Hill, in the pandemonium of London, where the destructive temptations of the modern world lurk in wait for the unwary. Not the best place one would think for a life of prayerful devotion and contemplation! The nuns are realistic that they cannot cut out the modern world altogether, but must make some concessions. It was interesting to see one nun doing some internet food shopping. I wonder if they ever go on Amazon? They seem to have a faith that allows them to embrace healthy new ideas, but not fall victim to the more sinister. The interviews reminded me much of those of the elderly Ardennes farmers in "Modern Life", in their naturalness and honesty. The filming seems to have been made using what natural light was available, so allowances should be made for the picture quality. I believe "Into Great Silence" was filmed in the same way! Film lighting would probably not have been conducive to worship! This is a fascinating documentary that gives you an insight into lives that are not so dull as we might imagine. There are a number of interesting extras, including further interviews. A thought provoking experience.