MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Into Great Silence

with 7 comments

The Carthusian monks who are the subjects of Philip Gröning’s documentary “Into Great Silence” do not, as the film’s title suggests, have a great deal to say. Living in a light-filled stone charterhouse (as the order’s monasteries are called) in a picturesque valley in the French Alps, they bind themselves to a vow not of literal silence but of extreme reticence. They pray and sing aloud, alone and together, and once a week the elders take an outdoor stroll during which some chatting is permitted.

Mr. Gröning’s cameras (one of them operated by the pioneering digital videographer Anthony Dod Mantle) observe the brothers from afar, or unobtrusively within their cells, a discreet approach that occasionally gives way to head-on portraiture.

Only one monk, elderly and blind, speaks directly to the camera. Appearing near the end of the film, he muses on the nature of his vocation and the texture of his religious devotion. Past and present are human categories, he says, but “for God, there is no past, only present.” Viewed from this perspective — from the standpoint of eternity — “Into Great Silence,” with a running time of 162 minutes, is absurdly short.

Mr. Gröning, a German filmmaker, waited 16 years for permission to document the Carthusians, and this too seems like a trivial interval. The order was founded by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084, and it appears that not much has changed in the lives of its adherents since then. A few concessions to modernity are visible: electric lights, a computer for keeping the books, and oranges and bananas in the middle of winter. But the rhythm of work, prayer and reflection —the attitude described as “joyful penitence” — flows in a cycle that feels not so much ancient as timeless.

And the film’s achievement is to capture, within a brief, elliptical span, this slow, delicate rhythm. “Into Great Silence” is not about the Carthusians in the conventional sense that documentaries are about their subjects. It offers no background on the history or theology of the order, nor any information about the biographies of individual monks. Though we do witness the initiation and adaptation of two novices, we learn nothing about their previous lives or their reasons for joining.

The psychology and philosophy of asceticism are not Mr. Gröning’s concern. He is after something more elusive and, from an aesthetic as well as an intellectual point of view, more valuable: a point of contact with the spiritual content of intense religious commitment.

He finds it by means of a visual style and an editing scheme that match the feeling and structure of the days and seasons as they pass through the charterhouse. Snow gives way to greenery, early morning light cycles around to darkness, and the viewer witnesses ordinary moments that add up to a persuasive representation of grace.

Not the thing itself — Mr. Gröning is not so vain as to suppose that a movie can provide a religious experience — but a preliminary understanding of its shape and weight. The sensual beauty of the images is part of this, but the film has more than lovely alpine vistas and arresting compositions of light and shade. Like the monks themselves, it is both humble and exalted.

And, in its way, eloquent. The idea of removing yourself entirely from the world is a radical one, and Mr. Gröning approaches it with fascination and a measure of awe. At first, as your mind adjusts to the film’s contemplative pace, you may experience impatience. Where is the story? Who are these people? But you surrender to “Into Great Silence” as you would to a piece of music, noting the repetitions and variations, encountering surprises just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern. By the end, what you have learned is impossible to sum up, but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered.

I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call “Into Great Silence” one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.

–A.O. Scott

Click Here to Watch the Trailer of the  Film

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Written by MattAndJojang

February 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I do appreciate Mr. Scott’s final line – not the best film, but the antidote to the others.

    I’m glad for the links to the film. I intend to watch it – what a blessing it is to have these things so easily available. It’s another bit of evidence that the internet is only a tool, to be used for good or ill. We can play Angry Birds and trade truly bad music videos, or watch “Into Great Silence”.

    Amazing.

    shoreacres

    March 5, 2012 at 4:43 am

  2. I love this documentary, Linda. In fact, it’s now my favorite film!

    For me, it’s more than a documentary on the life of the Carthusians – it’s a silent and moving meditation on the contemplative life. Only a few people can live such a simple, stark, and austere life. But the life of the monks is a reminder for us who live busy lives to slow down, and carve into our lives periods of silence and solitude, from time to time.

    An amazing and inspiring film, indeed!

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    March 5, 2012 at 8:25 am

  3. I have the DVD of this film, and sometimes I put it on for the images. It feeds my soul. In the night I can recall those images and know that place in my own solitary place.

  4. oops, the comment I just left was from me, Matt. I made it not realizing that I was logged into a wordpress account for a website that I am helping with.

    shoofoolatte

    March 6, 2012 at 9:35 pm

  5. Hi, Beth! it’s good to see you here. Thanks for dropping by…

    Indeed, “Into Great Silence'” is a great film! I understand how you feel. I’ve watched it quite a number of times myself, and each time I watch it it feeds my soul. In fact, the film has become a sort of refuge for me. Watching the Carthusian monks live their life in silence and solitude gives me a foretaste of what St. Paul refers to in the Scriptures as “the peace that surpasses understanding.”

    I’m just so happy that, after 16 years of waiting, the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse allowed this film to be made!

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    March 7, 2012 at 11:02 am

  6. This is the only film I’ve made the effort to see in a theatre in the last 10 years. I immediately bought it on DVD and it’s where I go when I’m in desperate need of some peace. I know I couldn’t handle their lifestyle physically (having read a bit about the hardships involved), but I still find it deeply appealing. I definitely need solitude and quiet to get my head straight, and I wonder just what might come out of that level of quiet…

    Sylvia

    March 7, 2012 at 12:41 pm

  7. Sylvia, “Into Great Silence” is a film worth watching over and over again. Not only is the film aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, but above all it is quite moving and inspiring.

    I agree, their lifestyle is physically demanding, and only a few people could handle it. I,too, have some idea of the demands of their lifestyle. Many years ago, inspired by Thomas Merton, I stayed for a few months in a Trappist monastery to discern if I had a call to the monastic life. (The lifestyle of the Trappist monks have a similarity to that of the Carthusians, although, admittedly, the lifestyle of the Carthusians is more austere.)

    Anyway, in our noisy and activity drenched society we don’t need to be Carthusians or Trappists to realize that we need silence and solitude from time to time. Frankly, I would go nuts if I didn’t have enough silence and solitude carved into my daily schedule.

    ~ Matt

    MattAndJojang

    March 7, 2012 at 7:53 pm


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