Outside the City

David Gritten / 17 March 2020

For four months now a remarkable, low-key British documentary film has been shown across the UK, one cinema at a time, to appreciative audiences who soon warm to its unusual subject: a group of Trappist monks in a Leicestershire monastery.

Outside the City is directed and produced by film-maker Nick Hamer, who spent a year paying weekly visits to the Cistercian monks at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, gaining intriguing insights into their lives in this closed community. Fewer than 30 monks live there, many of them over 80 years old. Their numbers have dwindled over time: at one stage 80 monks, almost all British, lived inside its walls. Now there are fewer than 30, but they hail from 11 different countries.

The monks, aware their community had a limited lifespan, decided they needed a plan to keep it viable and thriving. They hit on the notion of converting its dairy into a brewery – from which they have produced a beer called Tynt Meadow, which is advertised as ‘English Trappist Ale.’ It is selling well enough to have halted the abbey’s decline.

Yet while this is an attractive subplot in the monks’ story, Hamer is more interested in the men themselves, and how they conduct themselves. He soon came to realise that the simplicity of their existence and their total lack of material wealth had enriched their lives. This becomes clear in their contented acceptance of their inevitable demise. During filming, two of their number die and are buried in the abbey’s grounds; these occasions are marked by quiet joy and contentment on the part of those who survive them. Simply put, they are happy for their friends, whose deaths are the culmination of everything they have achieved in their long lives.

What Hamer has achieved here is the overturning of our assumptions about monastic life. His film is thorough, quiet, stately, often amusing and constantly engaging. It deserves the widest audience possible.

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