INTO GREAT SILENCE
Philip Gröning, Director
Zeitgeist Films, 2006
A lama I used to study with once said he didn’t understand why people would listen to recordings of Tibetan chanting. “That,” he said, “would be like watching someone else eat a meal.”
That’s precisely the challenge of Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s respectful documentary on the ultra-austere lives of Catholic Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. How can film, which by its nature shows the outer surfaces of things, convey the experience of men who have have taken a vow of near-total silence and wholly devoted themselves to the inner life?
Into Great Silence comes closest to this goal in several poetic low-light sequences, speckled with optical noise that almost palpably suggests the spiritual presence sparkling through simple objects and routines. Gröning might well have been thinking of the great Christian poet and mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his sense of the divine presence as an all-pervasive electricity: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Certainly the film doesn’t try to finesse the problem through verbal explanation. In keeping with its title, it is almost entirely wordless, as it follows the monks through their days and seasons of silence and solitude: kneeling in motionless prayer in their individual cells, walking in twos or threes down a long, vaulted white stone corridor in their white hoods and robes, sawing firewood, digging snow from seedbeds and later planting and watering the vegetables. Inanimate objects are as eloquent in their silence as the humans: water droplets gathering at the lower edge of a just-washed bowl, the single red candle in the darkened great room in which hymns are sung through the night, even the twice-glimpsed white jetliner—a strange emissary from the outside world, so high overhead that it makes this world feel even more remote.
We are pulled so powerfully and so rhythmically into this silent world—to suggest a lifelong commitment to monastic routine, Gröning makes liberal use of repetition, returning again and again to the same kneeling monk or the same red candle—that the rare instances of talk are shocking. Before the assembled brotherhood, two novitiates are formally inducted into the order (“What do you ask for?” “Grace”). Near the end, an elderly monk with extravagant eyebrows like gray weeping willows explains why his closeness to God makes him unafraid of death and even grateful for his blindness. The elders of the community enjoy their prescribed Sunday walk, where they indulge in high-spirited gossip concerning the practices of neighboring monasteries, clucking their tongues over the order that sets out six wash-basins before the meal instead of just one (imagine!). When a grizzled monk loudly calls a missing cat to its dinner, his voice feels so raucous we want to shush him.
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