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Review: The Voice


- Dominika Montean-Pańków’s documentary feature debut brings us into the secluded world of a Jesuit novitiate in Northern Poland and eventually prompts some intimate introspection

Review: The Voice

Preparing for the priesthood requires deep concentration and a close look within yourself, according to the elderly monk at the Jesuit order in Gdynia who accompanies the young novitiates throughout their two-year-long trial, as we see in Dominika Montean-Pańków’s The Voice [+see also:
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, which has just won the Golden Alexander in the Newcomers competition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival (see the news). “You can think, intellectualise and theorise, but may never meet with your own self. And that would be a disaster,” he claims. Hence, the first thing he requires from the newcomers upon arrival is for them to hand over all electronic devices and communication tools that might put them in touch with the outside world. They should turn off all notifications from beyond these walls in order to concentrate only on their inner voices.

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In between their philosophical sessions on meditation and mind-soul unity, visually arresting intermissions with long and contemplative shots put the audience to the test, too – are we able to stare at and focus on the emptiness of these sandy landscapes without our minds drifting onto something else? Religious or not, one cannot help but admit that the devil is in the distraction we are constantly exposed to; the never-ending stimuli in this fast-moving environment bring a tension and anxiety that alienate us from others, but also from ourselves. In this sense, The Voice is not just a curious look at the routine and existential doubts of those who are about to renounce material possessions in order to dedicate themselves to the preparations for eternal life. Touching upon the very essence of existence through persistent observation and coherently ascetic aesthetics, the film fosters self-reflection on our own scattered gaze and distracted thoughts, and acts as an invitation for cinematic reclusion.

Portrayed both individually and as part of the group, the novices’ personalities are profiled through details from their past, with an accent on their motivation for joining the community. The camera follows them during their daily tasks around the house, the time spent in hospital accompanying terminally ill people and their exercises to achieve spiritual maturity, such as their attempts to remain on their own while enduring the emptiness within. The ones who do manage to get in touch with their inner voice are likely to feel ready to dedicate themselves to a religious life, regardless of the fact that their trembling voices might never persuade us of this, as the penultimate scene with a young priest crying upon taking his oath suggests.

Surprisingly, director Montean-Pańków and DoP Wojciech Staroń seem to benefit from open access to an environment that is otherwise protected from external influences – from the “classes” that the novices attend to the private conversations with each other in which they express hesitations and doubts about the ongoing training and the priest’s path in general. One cannot help but ask how the camera’s presence aligns with the strict requirement for isolation and the abandonment of mediating devices. How truthful can their private moments be in front of a film crew? Nevertheless, the cinematic magic works, and one easily forgets about all of these ethical questions, since the illusion of being immersed in this exclusive setting is absolute. And the search for one’s inner voice grows in intensity, for both the characters and the audience.

The Voice is a co-production between Poland’s Kalejdoskop Film and Telewizja Polska.

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