‘A Still Small Voice’ Review: Thoughtful Doc Examines the Exhaustion of Hospital Chaplaincy

Sundance 2023: A chaplain-in-training faces a baptism of fire in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic

A Still Small Voice
Sundance Institute

“A Still Small Voice” is both universally relevant and as niche as a film can be; only those willing to descend into the depths of grief will seek it out, though it holds wisdom enough to apply to us all.

Documentarian Luke Lorentzen (“Midnight Family”) follows Mati, a charismatic young chaplain in training, whose hospital residency happens to coincide with the earliest days of the COVID pandemic. Traveling from floor to floor at New York City’s Mount Sinai, she offers terminally-ill patients both gentle guidance and an accepting place to unburden.

Lorentzen wants to show us all aspects of Mati’s labor, and perhaps surprisingly, given the bureaucratic setting, these include on-the-clock hours for play, reflection, and relaxation. She’ll stand in a hallway offering KIND bars, essential oils and empathy to physically and emotionally overworked nurses one hour, and quietly assess her response with her boss, Reverend David, the next. A devastating interaction with a patient might be followed by silly games with colleagues in the chaplain’s break room.

Even so, exhaustion is a constant presence at her work, and she seems startled to find she can’t leave it there. “I’m running on empty,” she confesses from her bedroom one afternoon, acknowledging that she has patients to call but can’t get herself to do it without a cigarette break on her little balcony first.

Who would willingly take on such an overwhelming job and why? This is one of the primary queries of the film, and one Mati is also trying to understand. She asks questions from everyone with whom she interacts — patients, her mentors, and herself.

“What is the price that you will pay?” David wonders, hoping to teach her about boundaries when she expresses her weariness and sadness. “Life is short. Live your dream and share your passion,” proclaims the poster on his wall. It is eminently clear, however, that hospital chaplaincy is not just a passion but a true calling, and we see how this inner motivation both frustrates and impels his team. They can’t walk away when others might but they need immeasurable strength to move ahead.

Lorentzen’s single-camera, vérité approach creates an intimate connection between audience and subjects, and the private moments in the chaplains’ break room are among the most powerful. The department’s carefully constructed systems allow the team to process their experiences and emotions, so they can return to the challenges of their job over and over. And they are so kind and thoughtful with each other that these scenes successfully demonstrate how any strenuous employment should be considered and what types of people might be inspired to take on this particular work.

At one point, Mati shares with a colleague that, even as a chaplain, she is openly struggling with her faith and the concept of God. Yet her lack of cynicism, and her respect and care for patients and their families (like those of the other chaplains we meet more briefly) is so astounding it feels almost miraculous.

But then comes a totally unexpected twist, one that reminds us that Lorentzen’s subjects are, in fact, extremely human. It would have been enlightening to learn more about this turn of events, but the route to that objective perspective lies explicitly outside the range of his method. So as it turns out, it’s really the director himself who best embodies the title. His camera sits quietly and nonjudgmentally so that his soft-spoken subjects can explore and express the grandest themes imaginable: what it means to live, and how we learn to die.

“A Still Small Voice” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.