Year of release: 2018 Directed by Abbie Reese.
One of my favorite memories from my years as a Catholic homeschooled child was the time another family organized a field trip for five homeschooling families to visit a local Benedictine abbey, where we got to spend the day with the cloistered nuns, helping them with their work and attending two of their daily prayers. Some of the kids got to work in the garden, others make butter, some did carpentry. My sister, myself, and one other child got to milk cows. It was a fun day participating in a life that most people don’t get to see.
With a quietly observant camera, director Abbie Reese achieves a similar participation in the life of a Poor Clares community as she documents the novitiate process of Sister Amata over the course of several years. This convent is more cloistered thanthe convent I visited almost twenty years ago, at least as I remember it. The Poor Clares here maintain a spirit of silence, which I don’t remember the Benedictine nuns doing. However, the serenity and joviality of the nuns and their willingness to work with Abbie is nearly identical to the reception we received. In the film, we witness daily chores such as leaf raking, gardening, shoveling snow, and making communion wafers, and we are able to remotely participate in the nuns’ recitation of the rosary and the liturgy of the hours.
The nearest point of comparison is the 2005 documentary about the daily lives of Carthusian monks, Into Great Silence. One main difference between that film and Chosen: Custody of the Eyes is the degree of intimacy with which we can observe the monastic life. Chosen documents the daily routines of the convent through the quite literal perspective of Sister Amata.
Working as the primary cinematographer, the young novitiate used a handheld camera to record her daily activities, providing a journalistic commentary on her spiritual growth and her adapting to life in the convent. If this sounds like a recipe for a cheesy, poorly filmed documentary, it’s not. Sister Amata has an incredible talent for focusing a shot, properly angling the camera, and capturing some beautiful and delightful imagery. She finds a natural way to film the nuns while preserving the anonymity many of them desire.
One thing that Sister Amata mentions is learning the routines of the monastery. In a very early scene she discusses maintaining custody of her eyes while trying to unobtrusively observe the gestures and movements of the other nuns so she can learn from them. She explains staring at anyone would make them the object of one’s attention when sole focus of the nuns’ life of prayer should be God.
Throughout the film Reese, through Sister Amata’s cinematography, employs a similar custody of the camera inviting contemplation on the part of the viewer. With the exception of Sister Amata, we don’t get to know any of the nuns as characters, especially as they are rarely the focus within each scene. Yet, there is still a connection we feel with them from observing their interactions alongside them, and the focus on daily tasks, ritual, and prayer—the actions of the nuns—makes the convent life seem more immediate.
One of the earliest documentaries, Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, makes a strong connection between the ideas that the eye is the window to the soul and a camera can be a window to the world. In this documentary, we are given a brief window into a cloistered convent, and it becomes both a record of one woman’s progression through her novitiate and an opportunity for us to reflect on a way of life of which most people are unaware.
Personal Recommendation: A-