The clip above, from the Czech filmmaker Jana Ševčíková 2001 documentary Old Believers, is one of the most captivating, mysterious pieces of filmmaking I have ever seen. It is near the very end of the film, and you really can’t appreciate it fully without having seen the whole thing. Nevertheless, please watch that clip, which lasts just short of two minutes. It depicts a church bell-ringer in a Russian Orthodox exile community of peasants living in a rural Romanian village. Watch his ecstasy, and observe his exhaustion when he finishes. It’s uncanny.
This nine-minute “trailer” (as they call it) gives you more of the film. I couldn’t find the whole thing anywhere online. I ran across a DVD copy in my local library, and checked it out because I was interested to know more about the Old Believers, a schismatic Russian Orthodox sect that broke away from canonical Orthodoxy in protest of 17th-century reforms. They were horribly persecuted by the Church and the State. Many of them went abroad into exile. The film profiles the descendants of Old Believers who settled in the Danube River delta in far eastern Romania.
Shot over five years in the late 1990s, the black-and-white film looks and sounds like a camera crew was sent back centuries through time. These people are poor and primitive — really and truly peasants. Their religious faith is everything to them. You watch and listen to them sharing their crude cosmology and almost superstitious beliefs with the director — some of them don’t even believe man has been on the moon — and if you’re me, you realize how much you appreciate modernity. This is how most people in Christendom have lived throughout its history, I imagine. There’s probably not much difference between how these modern Old Believers live and your average French peasant in the 18th century, for example. These are rough people. To live in an impoverished village so immersed in tradition and religion seems utterly suffocating. At least it did for most of the film.
But at some point, I’m not sure when, I realized the power that their simple but fiery religion gave to these people, and the dignity. They live lives harder than most of us Americans can imagine. Their faith is the greatest treasure they own. It raises them up, and allows them to experience the transcendent, even though they are filthy and culturally backward and wear clothing that’s a few popped stitches away from rags. When one man says that they have been given their tradition by their fathers down through the centuries, and their duty is to uphold it, it was hard for me to decide if this is a curse or a blessing. It’s probably both at the same time.
Then you get to the end of the film, and you see the rapture of the bell ringer, and you wonder if that pious peasant is one of the richest men on the planet. What would people like us give to experience that man’s ecstasy? Would we be willing to take on the agony of life in his Romanian village?
What does God see when He looks down on those peasants? How does He compare them to us?
Here is a 2009 story by Elif Batuman, writing in the New Yorker about Russian church bells. Excerpt:
In the Russian Orthodox faith, bells are widely considered to be “aural icons,” symbolizing the trumpet calls blown on Mt. Sinai and the sounding of the trumpet for the raising of the dead before the Last Judgment. Just as painted icons are not intended to be mimetic representations of a spiritual object but magical windows into the world of the spiritual, a Russian bell is not a musical instrument but, as Father Roman puts it, “an icon of the voice of God.” A Russian bell, he said, must sound rich, deep, sonorous, and clear, for how can the voice of God be otherwise? It must be loud, because God is omnipotent. Above all, Russian bells must never be tuned to either a major or a minor chord. “The voice of a bell is understood as just that,” he said. “Not a note, not a chord, but a voice.” Whereas Western European bells are tuned on a lathe to produce familiar major and minor chords, a Russian bell is prized for its individual, untuned voice, produced by an overlay of numerous partial frequencies, with only approximate relations to traditional pitches …. Where Western European bells play melodies, Russian bell ringing consists of rhythmic layered peals.
That’s what you hear in the clip from the documentary. The aural icon of the voice of God. What a world of wonders we inhabit.