It seemed that it would be an impossible task for Luke Lorentzen to find a more exhilarating follow up than his debut feature “Midnight Family,” about a father and his two sons dashing around Mexico City to supply an ambulance service to the locals that was otherwise hard to come by in the nation’s health care system, but to do so, he looks inward in “A Still, Small Voice,” once again locating an untenable reality for those taking on the burden of helping others by settling in at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York where chaplains are asked to absorb the pain of their patients. As Rev. David Fleener, a program supervisor, likes to say their mandate is the opposite of the adage “Don’t just stand there, do something,” instead asking his residents to sit back patiently and listen to those whose most pressing medical needs are handled by the doctors and nurses, but can benefit equally from someone simply willing to sit by their bedside to hold their hand or lend a kind ear as they vent.
That’s where Lorentzen first finds Margaret “Mati” Engel, gingerly going about ensuring a patient is comfortable with a series of gently persistent questions that he is too addled to answer verbally. In general, it can feel as if Engel is speaking into a void when she has no answers for pain, so she’s only guided by intuition in the fraught situations she enters on a daily basis and still a bit fearful to ask questions that might come across as personally invasive when there are things she’d rather not talk about herself. “A Still, Small Voice” meticulously reveals why that is, which is also surely the reason she pursued this unusual line of work and the film finds tension in her dilemma about how much she must give over of herself to her work to be effective at it, with Rev. Fleener showing considerable concern about how she sets relatively porous boundaries for herself.
The film vacillates between visits with patients for Engel and at least for her, the perhaps even more stressful meetings between all of the chaplains in the residency program where they are asked to speak about their feelings from treating patients and try as Rev. Fleener might to conduct open and airy conversations about their emotions, the exchanges can become just as wrenching for Engel when the interactions with her patients when touching on subjects like her relationship to God and involve recounting the terrible things she’s witnessed of late. It doesn’t help that Rev. Fleener is exhibiting a growing detachment from these meetings as he seeks to protect himself from being overwhelmed after six years on the job. That sensation is easily understood when Lorentzen, acting as both cinematographer and editor, presents the film in long unbroken takes where the transparency and searching of all involved becomes bracing and Engel and Rev. Fleener can feel increasingly isolated in the sterile environments they find themselves in.
Filmed during the pandemic, the subjects are masked for much of the film, but it can’t hide what’s going on inside their heads when confronted with unthinkable situations, particularly during COVID, that no amount of training could possibly prepare them for. Lorentzen hardly shies away from the toll this takes on Engel or the flaws in the program itself that may never be reconciled when the weight of the work is inherently unmanageable, but a silver lining comes in observing the willingness to engage in the first place and specific to Engel, an attempt to turn her own pain into a sense of purpose and following that thread leads to a film of enormous power.
“A Still, Small Voice” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at noon at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City and will be available online from January 24th through 29th.