Stuart Wood kicks off our Edinburgh International Film Festival coverage with a review of No Greater Love. Follow along with all of our EIFF reports, straight from the festival via our dedicated EIFF channel right here. And keep up with which screening Stuart’s headed to next by following him on twitter. Here’s Stuart:
It was only recently, despite having lived there for years, that I discovered that there was a convent in my city. Now and again when passing it I have wondered what exactly goes on in that seemingly desolate walled off mansion. Like many people my only real knowledge of nuns is that rather unreliable stereotype portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg and, perhaps more worryingly, 70s nunsploitation movies. So with Michael Whyte's documentary No Greater Love, a fly-on-the-wall look inside a London convent, mine and others curiosity could finally be satisfied. Well it would have been, had Whyte been able to be a bit more free with his editing scissors.
The Monastery of the Most Holy Trinity take a vow of chastity, poverty and obedience, living in almost complete silence except during brief periods of recreation time. The majority of the day is spent tending to chores or in prayer. As a result, large portions of No Greater Love take place with little except the noises of the tasks on display or the sounds of prayers and hymns. Whyte cleverly uses what little sound there is to ram home the power of silence which takes up the majority of the day. The monastery bell peals deafeningly, a garden rotavator roars like a crazed animal and a helicopter high overhead sounds like it's landing in the front yard.
There is no narration, no dramatic music or any of the trappings of the recent wave of post Michael Moore documentarians, Whyte simply points and shoots what is happening around him and lets the images do the work, occasionally dropping in snippets of conversations with some of the Sisters giving insight in to their thoughts and motivations behind their calling. The interesting things are often little things like how routine and tradition that have existed since 1878 carry on seemingly unchanged until we cut to a nun in the corner on an iMac ordering the convent's weekly groceries online. Also fascinating is the humanizing of the nuns. They are people with opinions and fears and even a sense of humor about themselves; at one point Whyte asks the Prioress if she fears death. With a wry smile she says she doesn't fear death as such but does worry now and again that the atheists might be right and there's nothing on the other side after all. It is in these moments where No Greater Love is at it's best, showing the contrast behind the almost robotic routine of their daily life and the sudden explosion of gossiping and laughter that erupts in the two hours a day where the silence is broken.
Where No Greater Love falls down is that, given it took ten years of lobbying to get the church to grant Whyte access to the monastery, he seems loathe to give up any of the footage he has captured and doesn't quite seem to know how to present it in some form of narrative. The interesting parts are padded out with frustratingly repetitive scenes of hymnal singing, silent prayer and gardening minutiae. While it could be claimed this may have been some clever attempt to force the viewer to confront how they themselves could cope with this lifestyle, without any form of structure or narrative and with the more interesting interview segments criminally brief, the result is an occasionally torturous 100 minutes where frequently your attention wanders and by the final third, you find yourself just willing the whole thing to be over.
Somewhere in No Greater Love is a fascinating 60 minute documentary which humanizes the faces behind the habits and gives a glimpse in to the lives of those who are willing to put themselves through one of the most drastic acts of faith still left in the west. Unfortunately, enduring the bloated running time of this documentary to find that 60 minutes may be your own leap of faith.