Luke Lorentzen’s observational documentary A Still Small Voice provides an intimate look into the emotionally and spiritually demanding work of hospital chaplains. Following chaplain-in-training Margaret “Mati” Engel and her supervisor Rev. David Fleenor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, the film sheds light on how caregivers handle being present during incredibly difficult moments of human suffering.
While not tied to any pre-existing franchise or source material, A Still Small Voice fits into Lorentzen’s filmography as a slice-of-life portrait highlighting individuals driven to serve others despite personal cost. Like his previous film Midnight Family, which followed paramedic crews in Mexico City, his latest documentary tackles the theme of persevering through traumatic experiences to fulfill a higher purpose.
Key figures portrayed include the introspective yet tenacious Mati, who wrestles with the boundaries between personal and professional toll while counseling grieving families, along with the sagely but burdened Rev. Fleenor, who tries to guide residents through spiritual crises without succumbing to them himself. Their journey together makes up the emotional backbone of the film.
In reviewing A Still Small Voice, we will examine how effectively Lorentzen immerses the audience into the chaplains’ world, evaluate the honesty and empathy with which he depicts their struggles, and decide whether the film provides a perspective on mortality that resonates beyond the walls of the hospital.
Walking the Long Road Together Through Grief’s Shadow
A Still Small Voice chronicles chaplain-in-training Margaret “Mati” Engel’s final year of residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City under the guidance of her supervisor Rev. David Fleenor. We follow Mati as she provides spiritual and emotional support to patients coping with devastating diagnoses or the loss of loved ones. Her sessions involve bearing witness to intense grief, holding space for questions with no easy answers, and being present with those undergoing profound suffering.
The film reveals the toll this work takes on Mati, as she struggles to balance empathy for patients with maintaining healthy boundaries. Intimate moments show Mati privately working through her own lingering pain from past trauma and loss. Meanwhile, Rev. Fleenor, a once passionate mentor, feels his enthusiasm waning under the strain of shepherding new chaplains. Their once amicable bond frays as both question whether they can sustain this calling.
While Mati excels at comforting patients through ritual and prayer, she harbors a crisis of faith rooted in the Holocaust’s horrors. She counsels families across religious lines with wisdom transcending any one creed. Still, she relies on touchstones like her Star of David necklace to steady herself amidst the maelstrom of emotions.
Scenes alternate between Mati’s private doubts and public composure, highlighting the exhausting balance required. We also gain fly-on-the-wall access to Rev. Fleenor’s group supervisions and one-on-one therapy. Here he admits the toll of guiding others through grief leave him feeling depleted and seeking a way out.
As Mati’s residency nears completion, a rift widens between her and Rev. Fleenor. Their accumulated anguish and unspoken pressures explode, forcing them to cling to their purpose amidst profound uncertainty. In the end, A Still Small Voice reveals the unglamorous struggles of those who comfort others in life’s darkest moments, while moving towards some hard-won peace.
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Besieged Shepherds Seeking Their Flock
At the heart of A Still Small Voice lies the complex inner lives of chaplain-in-training Margaret “Mati” Engel and her supervisor Rev. David Fleenor. Both reveal themselves to be deeply feeling yet conflicted individuals trying to light the way for others when their own paths remain shrouded.
We first meet Mati at bedside earnestly comforting a paralyzed patient, clueless to his experience but committed to companionship. Actor Embeth Makondele’s soulful presence and searching eyes convey Mati’s empathy flowing from wells of past sorrow. In counseling sessions, Makondele portrays Mati as a keen listener able to distill confusion into concise insights. Yet in private, she exudes a bottled turmoil threatening to breach her calm facade.
When Mati’s composure briefly breaks discussing a wrenching case, Makondele crescendos in anguish, yelling she’s “tired of holding this space” for others’ grief. Here we glimpse the price paid by one striving to selflessly serve. Makondele shone in oscillating between projecting inner light and inner darkness amidst the role’s taxing demands.
Equally illuminating was actor Courtney Dowe as Rev. Fleenor, the experienced shepherd who must model the way. We observe Fleenor in his element guiding residents through complex discussions with compassionate wisdom. Dowe’s thoughtful manner and relieved laughter convey Fleenor’s satisfaction in mentoring. Yet in confidential discussions, Dowe exposes Fleenor’s mirroring Mati’s scarred spirit.
Seeing Fleenor privately overcome by doubt, Dowe collapsed in upon himself, croaking of the “unspeakable pain” he bears vicariously. The revelation of figures like Fleenor and Mati giving so much of themselves that little remains is chilling. Yet in showing its leaders’ vulnerability, the film affirms our shared fallibility.
Though largely isolated, their intertwined arcs build towards a rupture in their bond. When their simmering hurts spill over, Makondele and Dowe’s pained argument crackles with the authenticity of a lifelong relationship fracturing. Their joint unraveling reminds all have limits, even supposedly saintly figures. Yet their inspired performances and characters’ humility ultimately uplift.
The Measure of a Life: Companionship in Our Fragile Existence
At its core, A Still Small Voice contemplates how we confront life’s impermanence and what provides meaning when mortality looms. Through depicting chaplains guiding patients spiritually, it posits compassionate presence as life’s essence when time grows short. Beyond mere entertainment, the film nudges us to reflect on how we relate to others amidst hardship.
We witness patients grading goodbye to lovers, children, and existence itself. Yet beyond physical deterioration, the film focuses on emotional impacts of impending loss. Many grapple with guilt, regret, and fundamental questions of purpose and faith. By avoiding morbidity and showcasing chaplains’ care, it suggests our connections can outweigh finite time’s cruelty.
The film asks: When stripped of trivial concerns, what redeems our fleeting passage? Its chaplains value listening over intervening, channeling empathy rather than advice. They provide acceptance without judgment, helping articulate confusing emotions. Their ministry validates simply being present as an act of immeasurable worth.
Likewise, the film argues fresh perspective is found by opening ourselves to others’ pain. When Mati shares in a dying man’s experience, it becomes clear none can fully know another’s suffering. Yet choosing to stand in solidarity despite this gulf brings meaning. By willingly entering darkness together, flickers of light emerge.
Ultimately, our accompaniment of fellow wayfarers is the film’s proposed balm to mortality’s sting. If life is short, then moments of true communion take on heightened significance. When Mati baptizes a stillborn with weeping parents, the ritual binds their shared anguish. Though heartrending, their togetherness consecrates ephemeral life.
By unveiling these private sacraments, A Still Small Voice suggests holiness dwells not in grand gestures, but holding another’s hand in the void. Wherever compassion is found, life’s meaning and timelessness shine through, if only we pause to listen.
A Discreet Yet Intimate Visual Portrayal
A Still Small Voice exhibits an understated visual approach that complements the sensitive situations depicted. Through intentional camerawork and editing, director Luke Lorentzen establishes an observational style that immerses viewers while respecting patients’ privacy. The calculated aesthetics mirror the chaplains’ ethos of dignified care.
Lorentzen often films from a muted distance during patient sessions, conveying an unobtrusive presence. Yet close-ups of clasped hands and weighted expressions erase any emotional distance. Stark moments like Mati rinsing baptismal water resonate through their simplicity. Even mundane activities take on posthumous meaning, emphasized via quiet composition.
Low lighting and subtle shadows echo the sombre tone when patients ponder mortality. Yet illumination peering through hospital windows hints at spiritual hope. Darkened silhouettes in doorframes suggest a passing between worlds, reflected in discussions about life’s transitions.
An extended macro shot of Mati’s necklace pendant glistening establishes it as a touchstone amidst turmoil. Quick inserts of hands wringing or covering mouths reflect wordless anguish. As Rev. Fleenor observes, “The body doesn’t lie.”
During ruptures like Mati’s eruption at Rev. Fleenor, the camera maintains its steady gaze. Their raised voices feel more explosive given the film’s visual restraint everywhere else. The images remain steady amidst inner chaos.
By mirroring the chaplains’ grace under pressure, the deliberate aesthetics reinforce the necessity of holding space. Through considered visuals, the film affirms that one need not intervene to provide comfort—merely being present is enough.
Purposeful Pacing Mirrors the Ebbs and Flows of Life
A Still Small Voice utilizes deliberate pacing in its editing to reflect the gradual arcs of grief and healing. Gentle scene transitions complement how the chaplains emphasize process over sudden solutions. The film emulates their ethos of small steps towards clarity rather than expecting epiphanies.
Early sequences linger on patient interactions and spiritual ceremonies. Lengthier shots reinforce the chaplains’ commitment to presence over hasty intervention. When a scene jumps quickly to Mati privately shedding tears, it conveys the quiet toll of restraint.
The film builds reflective pacing into its rhythms. Contemplative establishing shots of the hospital exterior ease us between hectic interior events. Quieter montages of clasped hands and candle flames provide visual caesuras amidst intense dialogues.
As both Mati and Rev. Fleenor question their work’s sustainability, editing patterns reflect their quickening doubt. More rapid cuts between their separate counseling scenes heighten their isolation. Fraying nerves become palpable as their exchanges grow terser and more frequently interspersed.
This accelerated pace amplifies the shock when Mati and Rev. Fleenor’s simmering tension finally ruptures. Their argument erupts through jarring cuts revealing vulnerability beneath authority. Yet afterwards, the film returns to steady shots watching them rebuild connection.
Overall, the meditative editing prompts us to situate each moment into a larger cycle. It manages to feel unrushed yet urgent, just as the chaplains work with urgency but without hurry. The deliberate rhythms coax audiences to find meaning in stillness just as the characters do.
Consciously Sparse Soundscape Keeps Focus on Substance
A Still Small Voice utilizes sound design minimally yet meaningfully, allowing the gravitas of the situations depicted to resonate through purposeful silence. Gentle audio textures complement the film’s discreet visual style without overpowering it.
Aside from natural hospital ambience, the film has no non-diegetic music until the credits. This void of orchestration ensures our full attention rests on the words and emotions exchanged. The absence of cues to heighten certain moments gives raw conversations space to breathe.
In heavier scenes, room tone dims subtly to signal entering solemn territory, but no soundtrack tries to manipulate feelings. We hear the full weight of words between a dying man and his family with no embellishment needed.
The most prominent use of audio is the titular “still small voice” uttered in comfort. Its hushed yet presence fills the sound field, affirming the power of few words spoken from the heart.
When music finally permeates the bereaved silence in the credits, its sorrowful strings offer elegiac release. Their measured melody complements scenes reflecting on the resilience required in honoring lives lost.
By refusing to overly amplify or embellish interactions, the selective sound design complements the film’s ethic of humility in the face of mortality. We are left to reflect on our shared fragility without sentimental distraction.
Ultimately, the most compelling audio remains the courageous words spoken between those providing and receiving end-of-life care. Their voices, unencumbered by embellishment, remind us of what matters most.
Transparent Performances That Transcend Acting
The poignant power of A Still Small Voice stems largely from the authenticity its ensemble brings to roles immersed in profound grief. Rather than overt dramatics, the cast exhibits subtlety and nuance that makes their characters’ pain piercingly real.
In the central role of Mati, Embeth Davidtz projects intellect and empathy with equal conviction. Her compassion feels born from deep wells of loss as she sits with patients. Davidtz conveys wisdom and doubt in equal measure, hesitating with furrowed brow as she gives parts of herself away. She eschews exaggerated mannerisms, even when emotions run hottest.
As Rev. Fleenor, Bill Camp exudes the weary weight of experience. In counseling Mati, Camp feels present and engaged, giving the sense of hard-won mastery. Yet scenes alone show the cracks within that mastery, as buried stress seeps to the surface. Camp neither exaggerates nor underplays, even during raw admissions of personal limits.
Supporting actors Enrique Almeida, Hong Chau, and Ellie Darcey-Alden deliver similarly grounded work as Mati’s fellow residents. Their camaraderie feels lived-in, giving authenticity to scenes exploring caregiving’s toll. Minor roles also avoid sensation, sticking to truthful dialogue and response.
Exchanges throughout favor thoughtful silences over verbosity, just as the chaplains emphasize listening over speaking. Words carry potency when finally spoken, such as a dying man’s whispered revelation that gives the film its title. Moments of natural humor provide levity without sacrificing sincerity.
By embracing nuance over bombast, the ensemble’s thoughtful work roots A Still Small Voice in relatable humanity. Their subtle performances illuminate the need for grace at life’s threshold.
Timeless Testament to the Universality of Suffering and Solace
Through vividly captured moments, A Still Small Voice distills life’s final chapters down to their most essential elements. Director Luke Lorentzen and a talented cast eschew grandiose flourishes, instead grounding the film in raw humanity. It bears witness to mortality with unflinching intimacy yet uplifting empathy.
In subtly exploring chaplaincy’s toll, it reveals the sacrifices made by those who tend to others’ spirits. Caregivers’ anguish so often remains hidden, but the film movingly unveils how giving endlessly of oneself leaves voids. However, it also shows how meaning is found through service, especially when self-focus melts away.
The subject matter carries timeless resonance, but it avoids pieties and sentimentality. Searing exchanges cut straight to the heart, but humor and candor balance drama. The contemplative visual approach complements how the story bears pain with grace.
Measured against Lorentzen’s prior film Midnight Family, also about persevering through trauma, his latest centers emotion over kinetic energy. Both offer immersive windows into people operating on society’s fringe. However, A Still Small Voice substitutes visceral urgency for meditative nuance.
Viewers weary of escapist fare will find a stirring pick-me-up in this composition on life’s final movement. The characters inspire through their imperfect courage and radical care. Their example, rendered with simplicity and compassion, kindles one’s own flame against the dying of the light.