Into Great Silence
2005Director: Philip Gröning
Cast: The Carthusian Order
eally, what can be said about a three-hour film dedicated to documenting the day to day routine of Carthusian Monks? Like the Christian Order, Into Great Silence is Spartan, arduous, and thoughtful. Mirroring the monk’s appreciation for the intricacies and minutiae they see woven into God’s work, it is detailed and keenly observed. It parallels their awareness of totality in its epic scope. And most notably, like the Carthusian lifestyle, the film is measured in pace and entirely entrancing.
Nestled deep in the snowcapped mountains of the French Alps, the imposing Grande Chartreuse Monastery is the Carthusian Monks’ place of residence and worship. While making Into Great Silence, filmmaker Philip Gröning was allowed unprecedented access to the facilities. Mr. Gröning originally intended to make this movie in 1978, but the Carthusians declined, claiming the time was not right. Seventeen years later, he received a phone call out of the blue. It was the Order, and they were ready for their close-ups.
And plenty there are. One of the most significant aspects of Into Great Silence is how seemingly complete it is in its depiction of monastic life. When the camera is not tucked in the corner of a massive, pillared hallway, it is a quiet and respectful spectator intimately investigating monks deep in prayer, something these guys spend the majority of their time doing. The devoted and punishing sessions are contrasted nicely by a wide variety of nature photography, primarily of mountain vistas, which are just as meditative as their counterparts, but in a less contained manner. Both prayer and the natural world deserve equal reverence, as each is an alternate route to the same destination. It is moving to witness these men travel the inner path. Their dedication to stillness and contemplation is impressive. But it is the study of the other, outer route that imbues Into Great Silence with its often profound serenity.
The most intricate of these observations are the time-lapse sessions. The camera is mounted in a corner of the central courtyard, where it can drink in the majority of the monastery grounds. Day turns into night turns into day. The monks’ patterns and routines move in near unison with the rising and setting of the sun. Their lifestyle is as consistent and unceasing as the Earth’s orbit. They exist in harmony.
The Carthusians harmonize to a stunning degree. In approximating the general tendencies of Mother Nature, they are slow to task, yet persistent. They always follow through. Each member has a specific roll to fulfill, almost like a second profession. Let’s call them specialties. The time between prayers is spent at work. There are the bell-ringers, the barbers, the chefs, and the gardeners. Mr. Gröning is wise in that he never imposes upon the men or their work. He is smart enough to observe. The simplicity of showing is certainly the most effective means to articulate the Carthusian process, and imbedded within this process is a philosophy. It is an artistic tactic that proves vital to the film’s success. The subjects rarely, if ever, appear distracted by Mr. Gröning, who is very careful not to intrude. We the viewers benefit, as we are made privy to a secret lifestyle rooted in centuries of doctrine and tradition that is mystical, mysterious and impervious to outsiders. It is not, however, entirely foreign.
Perhaps the most startling aspect of Into Great Silence is that the Carthusians are kind of normal. For all their devotions and vocations, we realize that, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of dudes. Hardcore dudes who live and die by a code, but dudes nonetheless. And it’s kind of a relief. There are two scenes in particular that really hammer this point home. On a warm spring day, some of the older monks take recess. They stroll through a verdant mountainside and casually discuss protocol. They gossip about other Orders. They swap stories. Later, on a bright winter day, some of the younger monks hike to the top of a snow-covered slope, take a running start, and launch themselves down the mountain. Sometimes they balance on their feet, sometimes they fall and slide down on their asses. They laugh, they horse around. They wear white robes. It’s very surreal.
The triumph of Into Great Silence resides in its ability to juxtapose the ordinary against the unordinary. Yes, the Carthusians are mortals. No, they are not aliens or from the future. Yes, they are human. They have names, personalities. They even know how to party. But they’re also disciplined as hell, and, unlike you and I who exist at the speed of the modern world, the Carthusians march to the beat of their own drummer, in step with an alternate universe. One stowed away in a distant mountain valley. Created in the name of the Lord. Observe: the word Silence is in the title for a reason.
Into Great Silence is playing in limited release.
By: Frank Rinaldi
Published on: 2007-03-26