A Still Small Voice: this luminous life-and-death documentary stands out in a crowded field

Luke Lorentzen’s follow-up to his 2019 festival darling Midnight Family follows a hospital chaplain and the inner turmoil she faces daily as she helps patients – and the families of patients – staring death in the face.

24 January 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Mati Esther Engel in A Still Small Voice (2023)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

At once an eloquent reflection on mortality and a quintessential document of the emotional and spiritual burdens of great responsibility, Luke Lorentzen’s A Still Small Voice finds the universal in the particular experience of a hospital chaplain. Undertaking a year-long residency program, Mati is tasked with accompanying patients and their families at the hardest, most vulnerable moments in their lives. She also reckons with the toll of fully investing herself in the work, and how her beliefs about humanity and God come to the fore. Her genuinely conflicted perspective and Lorentzen’s incredibly attuned, efficient filmmaking set this film apart in a crowded field of works on life and death and healthcare.

Mati’s daily duties might send her to the bedside of a woman coping with advanced lung cancer, or require her to telephone a woman shattered by the loss of a loved one. In being a stable and sympathetic voice, she’s fully present but also at a certain therapeutic remove, a balance she sometimes struggles with. The patients and family she speaks with can be beautifully articulate, even inspiring – a reminder of the clarity that moments of extremity can produce. The film’s title is one patient’s term for her gut feeling (though it also has a scriptural history, and was popularised in a line by Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, 1940).

A crucial added layer of insight comes from the rigorous discussions Mati has with fellow chaplains and their supervisor, which employ a formalised, almost ritualised language of professionalised empathy. In these meetings and her one-on-one check-ins with a somewhat stiff (and overwhelmed) supervisor, we see the tensions and sparks where her spiritual and emotional commitments collide with personal belief and constitutional capacity. Mati and her patients put us in a liminal, pressurised space where, when coping with life and death, language may or may not fail; where the spirit might be willing but we struggle to grasp our reality.

A Still Small Voice has an antecedent in Frederick Wiseman’s 1989 masterpiece, Near Death, which examines a medical extensive care unit in Boston. Lorentzen’s film shares Wiseman’s powers of compression in certain sequences, while becoming its own singular achievement through its attention to Mati’s personal path, as well as tuning into the reconsiderations and revelations of the grief-stricken pandemic era. Winner of a cinematography prize at Sundance in 2019 for his kinetic previous feature Midnight Family, Lorentzen seems poised to win further recognition for this latest, which surehandedly and unshowily engages with issues that so many of us have faced.

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