Luke Lorentzen’s latest documentary, “A Still Small Voice,” is a tender portrait of an underseen group among a hospital’s many departments. Embedding his camera among the new residents in spiritual care at New York City’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, he follows Margaret “Mati” Engel, an aspiring hospital chaplain, as she spends time with patients and families facing heartbreaking circumstances: cancer patients awaiting their last breath, young parents coddling their lifeless newborn that will never grow old, a grieving daughter who’s lost her father. Over time, the camera captures the wear and tear of working on the emotional frontlines—something that has only gotten more difficult in the wake of the pandemic. Mati’s supervisor, David, also begins to experience fatigue and is unable to help Mati when she’s overwhelmed. Even chaplains aren’t infinite resources.
Like his previous film, “Midnight Family,” Lorentzen is curious about what drives certain people to care more about others than themselves, making caregiving their line of career. His camera shows the intensity of the work behind roles most of society may take for granted. Like “Midnight Family,” “A Still Small Voice” is just as much about the mundane check-ins and procedures as it is about the more emotional moments. The people at its center are everyday heroes, doing their best for others through sleep deprivation and worse. They calmly jump into situations most civilians aren’t prepared to handle, whether that’s tending to an open wound or answering tough questions about death for a person squaring up with their impending mortality. However intimate, the documentary does little to explore the issue of healthcare burnout, which could have been appropriate given Mati’s experience as she was cautioned against getting too emotionally attached to patients.
Lorentzen often films from a bit of a distance, almost as if to provide some sense of privacy and space to the subjects and not impede on Mati’s work. When she’s alone making calls, Lorentzen’s camera moves in, observing her calming techniques as she talks through death and grief. She rubs her chest and touches her Star of David to soothe herself while comforting the crying voice on the line. Here is when we see the toll this work is taking on her and how her overcommitment to caring has unintended consequences.