Thanks to Elijah Davidson and Brehm Film (sign up for their newsletter and you will be notified of both in-person and online screenings), I received an invitation to watch Praying the Hours (2021), a film structured around the eight traditional monastic hours of prayer: Compline (the film starts, biblically, in the evening), Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers. The circle is completed by ending with Compline again. Though the characters are named after the Hours, it is not really an acting-out of the prayers symbolically or allegorically. Instead, as Elijah Davidson pointed out, it is closer to the way Kieślowski handles characters and stories in his Dekalog.
I wanted to love this film. I expected to love it. It seems like it would be right up my alley: meditative, complex, filled with poetry and prayer, structured around liturgical time (Lutherans have retained Matins (a combination of the morning prayer offices), Vespers, and Compline). I appreciated the work and the dedication of the cast and crew, who clearly made this as a labor of love. I appreciated it, but I didn’t love it. It was not because of the length, which is roughly three hours. (I think most films should be watched straight through so as not to lose the connection with the emotion and narrative. Having said that, I think this could be watched profitably in sections, perhaps according to the Hours.) My main issue is the feeling I get that some of the actors are acting rather than fully inhabiting their characters. This may be due to the subdued pace of the film, but it did not always work for me.
I do not want to be too hard on the production, though, and I do not want to dissuade anyone from watching. Though I do not have personal experience, I’ve talked to enough filmmakers to know that making an indie film—especially one of this ambition and scope—is incredibly difficult. And ther eis a lot to like here. The photography in Praying the Hours is beautiful (I especially like the shot at the beginning, where the snowy field is doubled around the title card, and the shot at the end, where The Traveling Man’s reflection switches from top to bottom). The editing is intelligent, moving us forward while we fill in the picture of the characters’ background. Even with the run-time, it feels spare. The rhythm of time in the film is significant and effective. I also appreciated the subtle ties that bind together life, family, memory, and relationships, leading to moments of sacrifice and service.
Throughout, as we follow each character, we are given hints of their relationships with the Traveling Man. The connections between the people is what makes the story ultimately work, and our patience is rewarded. We are aware of the main point of conflict, a tragedy, from near the beginning. And the Traveling Man shows up in each section of the film almost as an angel, in a liminal place between life and death, in order to help each character achieve whatever manner of closure, encouragement, or strength they need. All of this leads to an outstanding moment of catharsis toward the end of the film.
Finally, we are given a moment of full reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace, centered around a meal where bread and wine are prominent. In a scene reminiscent of Babette’s Feast, and in some ways going beyond it, all these different people, with their particular struggles, difficulties, grief, and guilt, are gathered together in a moment of joy. It is a forceful image of the Church. Even more, the meal is related to a sort-of wedding, though the fulfillment of the marriage imagery—as in this creation—is precluded by the circumstances. (As a Lutheran, my only quibble in this complex of scenes is that there was a missed opportunity for an additional potent and effective baptism/resurrection image.) For my part, the feast scene is, by itself, enough to recommend this film.
Though I did not love it, I can easily imagine many people encouraged by Praying the Hours, and even finding a way to consolation and healing. “Forgive everything, forgive everyone.”