I have to admit up front that I’m a perfect audience for Lovers of the Night, Anna Frances Ewert’s documentary about a small group of Cistercian monks struggling to maintain their existence in the lush Irish countryside. Perhaps the magic of the film as I experienced it would not transfer over to someone less sympathetic with the life and views of these monks. But I suspect not, if only because Ewert tells her tale with a beguiling simplicity and warmth, such that the rhythms of the film mimic the life of labor and prayer chosen by these men.
Never a huge group, this monastery has suffered the fate of many cloistered communities in the wake of the Vatican II reforms, with no new vocations in years leading to an impending sense of ending. The seven brothers – whose average age must be in the 70s – continue their dual sense of purpose, working on their farm (though much of the labor is outsourced now, with no younger monks to shoulder the more strenuous tasks), and praying throughout the day and night. These rhythms continue, even when the brothers face disruptions like the declining health of their oldest member.
Yet Ewer maintains an excellent balance between mere observation – letting the lives of the monks emerge through their habits – and a more probing approach, where she engages them in dialog about their vocations. That she can connect with those so different from her is a mark of her sensitivity as a filmmaker, and she draws out a surprising depth of detail from men more accustomed to silence than speech. Real struggles lie beneath the equanimous surface of the monks’ lives, and each gave up something of significance to join the monastery. One monk admits he misses the possibility of having had a wife and family; several recount the hostile or puzzled reactions of their families on declaring their vocation. Alberic, the most charismatic of the brothers, still nurses a deep love for rugby, a love that almost kept him from his vocation.
A larger sense of loss hangs over the monastery, though, a sense of communal death only a few years away. Many of the monks share with Ewer a fear of their own deaths, but the unspoken remains the death of the community. In many ways, Lovers of the Night is a film about dying with dignity.
The men mourn the end of their communal life, of course, but their day to day existence is so wrapped up in their devotion to God that they cannot be distracted from it for long. To watch these monks in their life is to exclaim with the poet W.H. Auden: “How beautiful it is,/that eye-on-the-object look.” These men, with their focused vision, radiate that beauty.
The few missteps in Lovers of the Night come from elements that clash with the overall sensibility of the film, moments where Ewer does not quite trust the audience to follow her vision. I found the ubiquitous subtitles distracting – the men all speak in English, their Irish brogues far from indecipherable. Worse is the intrusive piano score, which pops up at key moments to sell the emotion. The score itself pales in comparison to the frail, tender singing of the monks themselves, and the copious silence which surrounds them. But these blemishes are slight; on the whole Ewert has crafted a rich, profound film, one that nourishes the spirit.