Mati, the employee at the center of the hushed and absorbing documentary “A Still Small Voice,” reports for duty at an ordinary-looking office. There are cubicles, roller chairs, a water cooler and flat lighting that the director, Luke Lorentzen, would never dishonor by gussying up with a lamp. These are the chaplains’ quarters at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, and Mati and her colleagues are here to comfort the dying and the families of the dead — to transform this 1,134-bed institution into a sacred space. They are Olympian empaths and they are exhausted.
Unexpectedly — and astutely — Lorentzen emphasizes not the emotional support these workers give, but the support they need to soldier on. Mati leans on her fellow residents and their supervisor, David; he, in turn, allows the camera into his counseling sessions with his own adviser, the Rev. A. Meigs Ross, where he admits that he no longer has “the gas in the tank.” Lorentzen keeps the image respectfully still while the chaplains vent their grievances in sensitive, measured language. When the pressure drives two to snap and interrupt each other, their moderately raised voices are as shocking as a slap.
Here, comfort isn’t found in any particular religion. The one unifying belief is in a centering breath. Mati, raised Hasidic, questions whether she believes in God at all. Yet, in a powerful scene, she baptizes an infant who died at birth. Her persuasive words of comfort seem improvised. The holy water is in a Styrofoam cup. Somewhere, a door slams. It’s human and messy — and it’s divine.
A Still Small Voice
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.