No Greater Love, Michael Whyte, 100 mins, (PG)
The Infidel, Josh Appignanesi, 105 mins, (15)
Whip It, Drew Barrymore, 111 mins, (12A)

Notting Hill for carnival, Cameron, and now, Carmelite nuns

When I tell you that several critics were snoring during the press screening of No Greater Love, I don't mean to imply that Michael Whyte's fly-on-the-wall documentary is boring. It does, however, include sequences of contemplative tranquillity, which must have been lulling for those colleagues who were still exhausted by Clash of the Titans.

The film's serenity is all the more notable for its being set in Notting Hill, a bustling part of London famous for a carnival, a market, a romantic comedy, and the plottings of David Cameron's cronies. What it's less famous for is a monastery that houses an order of Carmelite nuns. Rarely leaving the premises, they devote themselves to prayer, and they don't talk except during two recreation periods per day. It's quite a coup, then, for Whyte to be allowed inside their arcane, oak-panelled world, a few yards and a million miles from the rest of Notting Hill. He is a sharp-eyed, patient observer of both its spiritual and earthly sides.

The earthly side? Well, there's something intrinsically cheering about seeing nuns baking communion wafers, folk-dancing, and buying groceries on the internet – a godsend, you might assume, for someone who's not supposed either to speak or go shopping. But it's also very moving to witness their candour and lack of pretension when asked about their vocation. Shutting yourself off from society is "not an escape," one says. "You're brought face to face with yourself."

No Greater Love is a warm, revelatory glimpse of an alternative lifestyle, shot in an appropriately unflashy style – although there are a couple of cheeky edits. At one point Whyte cuts suddenly from a long segment of silent prayer to the jarring buzz of a hedge trimmer. That stopped the snoring.

There's a less enlightening view of religion in The Infidel, a British indie comedy starring Omid Djalili. To give credit where it's due, Djalili brings bags of charm and faultless comic timing to his role, so it's a shame he's struggling against the flat, sub-television cinematography, and against the limitations of David Baddiel's script, which has half-a-dozen funny punchlines, and little else.

Djalili plays a Muslim minicab driver. Just as his son is about to get married to the stepdaughter of a fundamentalist cleric, he discovers that he was adopted as a baby, and that his biological parents were Jewish. Weirdly, he's not at all bothered by the adoption, but is horrified by his Judaism, even though, as Richard Dawkins says, it's absurd to attach any religion to a child before they have chosen it for themselves.

Maybe it would have been too much to expect The Infidel to take the Dawkins line, but the film is so afraid of its own premise that it doesn't even have Djalili questioning his Islamic beliefs, partly because, as a swearing, drinking, prayer-dodging bloke, he didn't have too many Islamic beliefs to begin with.

A Jewish-American cab driver (Richard Schiff) teaches him to say "Oy vey", but otherwise he doesn't learn anything except that a Muslim can have a Jewish friend. It's scary to think that this conclusion might shock anyone except the zealots that The Infidel purports to be mocking.

Whip It is another film with an oddly outdated message. It stars Juno's Ellen Page as a small-town Texan schoolgirl who spends her weekends being driven to beauty pageants by her mother, Marcia Gay Harden. Tired of being little miss sunshine, Page is drawn to the all-female sport of roller derby, i.e. skating around a track in an abandoned warehouse while elbowing opposing team-members in the windpipe. One montage later, and Page has been reborn as Babe Ruthless, star skater of the Hurl Scouts. Good on her, and all that, but does it really count as a triumph, in this day and age, for a 17-year-old to give up regional beauty contests?

Whip It is Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, and the entire film radiates her sunny positivity. The only snag is that, in the glare of all that positivity, the drama evaporates. Page joins the Hurl Scouts with no effort whatsoever, and her team-mates are far too wholesome to justify much parental disapproval. One character sums up roller derby as "hot girls in fishnets beating the crap out of each other", but the girl power of middle-aged women in nuns' habits saying their prayers turns out to be a good deal more entertaining.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber sees Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais get out of The Office and into the cinema in Cemetery Junction

Also Showing: 11/04/2010

Shelter (112 mins, 15)

Thriller starring Julianne Moore as a criminal psychiatrist with an unusual new patient: Jonathan Rhys Meyers has at least two personalities, and he might be on the look-out for more. Once we've sat through an hour of tedious psychobabble, Shelter becomes a jumble of hillbilly black magic, demonic soundwaves and other pulpy conceits that cry out for some tongue-in-cheek bravado, but the film sticks to a grey, miserable tone that makes it more depressing than scary.

I Know You Know (82 mins, 15)

In Cardiff in 1988, an 11-year-old tries to decide if his single dad, Robert Carlyle, is a secret agent or a paranoid schizophrenic. The answer is both mundane and unbelievable, and even at 82 minutes, this low-budget yarn outstays its welcome.

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