By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 26, 2007
At times fascinating, at other times frustrating, “Into Great Silence” offers an intimate look at monastic life. It is not always an easy film to watch, but, ultimately, it is rewarding, and its images will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
In 1984, filmmaker Philip Gröning first approached the General Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusian order of monks, with the intent of filming a documentary at the monastery. The response was that it was too soon. Sixteen years later, permission was finally granted. Gröning lived at the monastery in the French Alps for a total of four months in 2002 and 2003, taking part in the daily rituals and labor of monastic life. He worked alone on the film, and part of his agreement with the order was that no artificial light was to be used, nor any additional music or commentary.
The result is a completely unique work. “Into Great Silence” is a deeply contemplative and almost hypnotic film that allows the viewer to experience the day-to-day routines of life in the monastery. The overarching organization is based on the passage of time; the monks continue the labors of their daily life as the seasons slowly change around them.
The film raises as many questions as it answers. In the end, however, this is not necessarily a negative. Gröning’s work is deeply impressionistic—he offers snippets of activity with no explanation or context. In this way, Gröning forces us to consider each image separately as it appears and, as a result, to pay more attention to the details. A lack of clarification can be frustrating at first, but if you give it time, you can find yourself drawn into the slow rhythm of the monk’s world.
The filmmaker’s technique is to show the life in the monastery at a deliberate, slow pace and to dwell on the details. Moments focused in silence on a jar of buttons or the flame of a candle or a monk’s eye closed in meditation—these images framed in silence are difficult to get used to, but they offer a unique perspective of the beauty of the world around us. The still life aspect of Gröning’s shots is accompanied by an impressionistic aura. He shows the same images repetitively with only a minor change in light or timing, and often the filmmaker’s technique conspires to break down a whole image into parts, which further draws attention to the details. A shot of rain falling into a pond becomes beautiful and meditative as the ripples form rings and these fragment across the screen.
The point of view offered by the camera alternates between an obtrusive presence and an intimate observer. Shots formed through doorways and over the shoulders of the monks seem to emphasize the role of the observer as an outsider, but the extreme close-ups of the textual world of the monastery seem very intimate and personal.
The Carthusians are considered one of the most austere monastic orders in the world. The brothers live in solitary cells, coming together only for Mass twice a day and a weekly communal meal and walk. They sleep, eat and meditate alone, and their days and nights (including a nighttime prayer session that interrupts their sleep) are strictly ordered, measured out by the sound of the chapel bell. They are encouraged to speak as little as possible, only in prayer and when necessary to perform their work.
A scene filmed in the anteroom, where each brother has a box for messages, illustrates their seclusion. We see the men go in and out, passing each other as they collect their messages, yet never looking at each other or uttering a sound. In comparison to the hectic, social outside world where failure to acknowledge another is considered the height of rudeness, this self-imposed isolation is almost eerie, yet this scene perfectly demonstrates the remote world these men have chosen. In a sense, the viewer becomes just as isolated as the film progresses; the lack of a soundtrack and the slow pace of the film allow for more contemplation of one’s own thoughts about the images on the screen.
Just at the point when the sense of isolation becomes almost unbearable, Gröning inserts a moment with more lightness—one of the brothers crooning to a pack of barn cats or the members of the order chatting amongst themselves as they take their weekly walk. One of the most indelible images comes toward the end of the film as Gröning shows the brothers out on a walk on a cold winter’s day. The men try to slide down a snow-covered hill on their shoes, and as they tumble down the slope, often crashing into each other, the sound of laughter fills the air. After the solemn episodes that precede this scene, this sound seems both alien and miraculous.
At one point, the brothers are shown in a rare conversation as they walk through the countryside. Several members of the order are discussing the merits of a traditional hand-washing ceremony. One of the men comments to the others, “Our entire life, the whole liturgy, and everything ceremonial are symbols. If you abolish the symbols, then you tear down the walls of your own house.” A life filled with symbolism and order requires discipline, and the strength of the brothers comes through in every frame of the film.
The monks appear as individuals through close-ups. Gröning includes head and shoulder shots of the brothers interspersed throughout the film. He shows each man alone, looking into the camera, for several moments, then goes on the next man. Each is unique, and it is clear that each man has a story. Looking into the men’s eyes and seeing their reactions to being placed in the gaze of the camera makes one want to know more about them as individuals and invites wonder about their motivations for choosing this rigorous life. However, by the end of the film, when Gröning finally includes an interview with one of the brothers in which the man explains his beliefs about death and the infinite goodness of God, the discussion seems out of place in the film. The documentary has already illustrated the monks’ deep and abiding devotion to God and to monastic life; explaining this devotion in words is no longer necessary.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.