(UK, 2009, directed by Michael Whyte)
London, March 30, 2010 (Peter Malone) - The title of this religious film is a familiar phrase from the Gospel of John. Jesus, in his farewell discourse after the Last Supper, uses it to declare that no greater love is shown than when someone lays down their life for a friend. People often use the phrase in relation to martyrdom. But, it can also refer to those who lay down their day-by-day life for friends or in any service of others.
The title of this documentary refers to this kind of love. The Carmelite Sisters of Notting Hill, London, lay down their lives in cloistered community for others.
Michael Whyte, who produced, directed and edited this 105 minute documentary for the cinema, lives in the same square as the nuns. He had requested permission to make a film ten years earlier. The time was judged not right by the nuns but finally they agreed that it was. Michael Whyte filmed for a year or more, given full access to the convent.
There is no controversy with this film. Rather, it is a film which will be of interest to Catholic audiences whether they are familiar with this kind of enclosed life or not. Those who do not share Catholic faith, or even Christian faith, may well be wondering what a contemplative Christian vocation consists of. The film does provide many answers.
This kind of interest was manifest, especially in Western cultures, with the 2006 release of the film, Into Great Silence . That was made by an outsider to Christianity, observing the life of Carthusian monks who live a life of contemplation and silence. However, it was a kind of jigsaw of scenes and sequences, giving an impression of the life rather than any explanation. Catholics would not have learned a great deal about the Carthusian spirituality and its perspectives on God, the person of Jesus and the liturgy which is so important for day by day monastic living. There were some interviews, but the film was a visual portrait of the monks rather than a film offering exploration or insights. It was a film from continental Europe which often prefers a poetic or an abstract, atmospheric portrait rather than tell a linear story.
While No Greater Love is a portrait of the nuns and their way of life, the Anglo-Saxon way is evident insofar as there is a linear development of plot, a year in the life of the monastery, the interviews providing explorations of spirituality and prayer and offers answers to questions that observers might have: about how the nuns can manage such a way of life, enclosure and silence, about awareness of God, about prayer and separation from the world, about contemporary communications technology and what approach the nuns should have to radio, television, newspapers and the internet.
Because the nuns are Carmelites, it would have been even more interesting to have more explicit reference to the traditions of the order, the nature of Carmelite prayer and contemplation and how the great names in that Carmelite tradition, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux contributed to the developing Carmelite spirituality. There is practically nothing presented explicitly on these themes.
Several of the sisters are interviewed during the film, including the superior. They give reasonable accounts of themselves. The personal witness is the witness that has greatest impact. While many may not quite understand or appreciate this way of life, they will find the sisters' reflections of great interest and, even, inspiration.
The Anglo-Saxon practicality is also evident in the selection of day-by-day sequences, from the daily celebration of the Eucharist, with the nuns assisting, especially with communion, and the recitation of the prayerful offices, to the meals, the cleaning of the house, the making of hosts for Masses and their preparation for postage - and lots of work in the garden. There are some recreation sequences where the nuns both chat and sew, and enjoy a laugh, even sometimes a modest dance or jig. The human face of the sisters.
The point is made that contemplative groups in any religion offer a valuable witness to deeper values and some silent reflection in a world that is increasingly louder and 24/7 active - made all the more vivid as the camera rises from the monastery at the end and audiences see that it is located in the middle of suburban London.
Official website of the film: www.nogreaterlove.co.uk