Last night I watched “Pacatoasa Teodora” (The Sinner Teodora), an elliptical documentary by director Anca Hirte. It follows a young woman named Teodora as she prepares to make her final vows (? this was not a documentary big on explaining situations or helping the viewer) at a women’s monastery.
This is a haiku-like, compressed film, with lots of overlapping conversations about nothing in particular and lots of very tight close-ups on Teodora’s lips or eyes. It’s a sidelong glance at monastic life, not an in-depth investigation. It emphasizes the interpenetration of utterly ordinary concerns–did you let the chickens out? do you think I should iron this again?–and otherworldly beauty.
This is not a movie about particular people. We get virtually no insight into Teodora’s life, emotions, or spirituality. What draws her to the monastery, and what does she fear? That isn’t what the movie is about. The only “character” is monastic life itself. An older nun reminisces, “I have loved so much”–like the old monk’s speech about love in “Of Gods and Men”–and nuns speak of the peace and joy they have found in the monastery, which they couldn’t find in the outside world.
The film presents us with the contrasts of monastic life without attempting to reconcile or explain them: Teodora identifies herself by her new name as “Teodora the Sinner” even as she’s heaped with flowers, kissed and bedecked as a bride of Christ, and the movie is not actually about how the beauty and mercy affect her understanding of her own sin. (Or what her sins might have been. We actually see her confession. It’s a very general confession, like a communal penance service for only one person, but I still felt like I was intruding on something–like it was wrong for the camera to be there. I don’t know if that’s an overly-Catholic response to a scene which may have different resonances for Orthodox viewers.) There are symbolic hints about sin and redemption. When another nun is combing Teodora’s gorgeous hair out in preparation for it to be shorn, Teodora says in sad frustration, “It’s so tangled.” The nun replies, “It’s just been washed.”
Hard work, weird beauty; allusions to sin and penance; a flutteringly feminine atmosphere; pounding drumbeats and soaring chant; the hushed intimacy of a soul’s encounter with God–that I think is what “The Sinner Teodora” will give viewers. You can watch it here.