Into Great Silence

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 05/06/06 21:04:35

"If Robert Bresson had made a documentary about monks, this would be it."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Twenty years ago, German filmmaker Philip Groening ("L'Amour, l'argent, l'amour") approached the strict, reclusive Carthusian Order about making a documentary detailing their daily lives in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. Thirteen years later, the Carthusian monks agreed to participate in Groening's project. It took another five years to complete the nearly three-hour documentary, as spare and austere as the rituals and rules that define the Carthusian Order. The end result, "Into Great Silence," is a moving celebration of the Carthusian monks' simple lifestyle and their dedication to a contemplative and meditative life.

Structurally, Into Great Silence follows the seasons, beginning in a snow-covered, near silent winter. But for the monks, the isolation and separation from the world below is exactly what they want. Into Great Silence follows individual monks as they go about their daily activities, beginning with morning prayers, continuing to the work needed to maintain the sprawling, mountainside monastery, to preparing and eating their meals. The monks generally eat alone in their cells. While the monks are shown in individual prayer, they also meet for morning and evening prayers, where minimal communication is allowed (e.g., sermons, the rules of the order). Chanting allows the monks to use their voices collectively. At rare times, the monks are allowed to leave the monastery for walks, where conversational speech is briefly allowed.

As the title suggests, the Carthusian Order strictly adheres to silence as a general rule. The soundtrack, however, is filled with natural sounds, walking on wooden floorboards, kneeling in pews, sawing wood, the preparation of food, the dripping of water from a freshly scrubbed water bowl, even the resident tailor-monk cutting and fitting new robes for a novice monk. We also hear the occasional muttering from one of the old monks, and in one of the most affecting scenes, an elderly monk takes kitchen scraps to the barn as cats gather for the meal. Here, outside of the confines of the monastery proper, the monk seems at ease to express himself verbally.

In keeping with this approach, Groening decided not to use the traditional tools of the documentary filmmaker, e.g., voiceover narration, interviews, prefatory or explanatory title cards, or even the names of the monks. Other cinematic elements take on heightened importance and immediacy. Light, shadow, and camerawork are central to what becomes an immersive experience. The light falling through windows and arches takes on a preternatural clarity and intensity rarely found missing from traditional documentaries. But what message does Groening want to convey to his audience? The answer seems to be nothing less than experiencing the monks’ daily rituals and lives vicariously. If that’s the case, Into the Great Silence certainly does what Groening set out to do.

Groening's non-traditional approach to documentary filmmaking also leaves questions remain unanswered. For example, most of the monks seem to be middle-aged or elderly. Where and how do the elderly monks receive medical treatment? Are there the monks entering the order sufficient to keep the monastery running? What about the two young novices we see joining the order? Do the novices remain in contact with their families? It’s unlikely, but one novice still keeps a picture of his family with him. What led them join the Carthusian Order as opposed to another one (or service in the non-cloistered world)? Late in Into Great Silence, Groening decides to interview an elderly blind monk who discusses spirituality, mortality, and the meaning he's found for himself leading a devout, ascetic life.

Ultimately, "Into the Great Silence" could have benefited from a tighter running time. As "Into Great Silence" slips into the third hour, Groening’s measured observation of the monks' daily rituals becomes repetitive and perhaps even self-indulgent (understandable given Groening's familiarity with the monks and the monastery). Thankfully, "Into Great Silence" comes full circle, bringing us forward in time to a new winter season. For the Carthusian monks, however, the changing seasons doe little to alter their lives of quiet contemplation and spiritual devotion.

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