Into Great Silence

Into Great Silence
A Film by Philip Gröning
Zeitgeist Video, 2005
Review by Carl McColman

Into Great Silence finally opened in Atlanta last night. And while advance buzz and personal anticipation for an upcoming film can lead to disappointment (anyone remember the collective horror that descended across America the summer of 1999 when The Phantom Menace turned out to be so mediocre?), I am pleased to report that this is a film that exceeded my expectations. In fact, at the risk of being a tad overblown, I would suggest that Into Great Silence can stand on its own as a significant document of Christian contemplative experience, alongside the best work of Thomas Merton or even The Cloud of Unknowing. Granted, this is a film that inspires many questions and provides few if any answers. But that’s part of its genius.

It would be quite a stretch to say this movie was “hyped,” but it did have its share of advance publicity, which was helpful in preparing me for how singularly quiet a film it is. Basically a one-man production, Into Great Silence documents the life of monks at the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. German filmmaker Philip Gröning lived in the monastery for several months in 2002-3, shooting over 120 hours of footage, nearly all without any dialogue in accordance with the monks’ vow of silence. He distilled this treasure down into a two and a half hour “documentary” on the experience of being a monk in the third millennium, living a life of silence, of time at the edge of eternity. I put quotation marks around the word “documentary” because he broke several rules of conventional documentary filmmaking: no narration, no soundtrack (other than the monks chanting or tolling their bells or the ambient noises of their daily lives), no discernible storyline. Just 164 minutes of life in a Carthusian monastery, mostly presented in silence.

Such a film could go horribly wrong in so many ways. It could be boring (I suppose many people in our guava-and-ephedra crazed culure would think it is anyway, but for anyone who can meditate for half an hour, this film works). As an arthouse film about Christian monasticism, it could easily come across as dismissive of religion or, even worse, as sanctimonious. Its artiness could sink under its own self-consciousness. Thankfully Gröning dodges all these bullets, by deftly weaving together a succession of striking, beautifully photographed images with equally memorable moments of lightness, even playfulness, as the monks go about the ordinary rhythms of their extraordinary lives. We see water dripping off a dish as it rocks slowly back and forth, after being washed following the monk’s meal taken in solitude and silence. The darkness of the church during the midnight nocturn prayers gets punctuated by the distant glimmer of the single sanctuary candle. An elderly monk crunches unsteadily across the snow to begin preparing his garden for the upcoming spring planting time. But then we see another monk playfully calling the monastery’s thriving cat population to their dinner; a rare moment of conversation (permitted on Sundays when they take a communal walk) includes musing on the power of symbols and noting that a member of the community is leaving the next day for Seoul; and in the movie’s most lighthearted moment, a group of monks playfully slide down a snowy/icy hill like a group of enthusiastic schoolboys.

This is a movie about time and rhythm. The tolling of the church bells seems almost omnipresent, while Gröning makes a point to bring the viewers back again and again to the repetitive rounds of life: delivering food to the monks in their private cells; a visit to the in-house barber; and of course, the perpetual cycle of study and prayer. Like bookends to the little, obscure, laborious lives that these men lead, Gröning presents on the one hand the splendors of the Alps and the surrounding forests, on the other the rich textures of their shared liturgical life: the admission of a new novice, a Eucharistic procession, reading from their rule in the chapterhouse, and of course, the ubiquitous bells calling the men to their knees or back into the church for yet another of the day’s offices. Other rhythms in the film are more artificial, yet work nonetheless: “portraits” of various monks as they gaze silently into the camera, one after another; and a handful of Bible verses (most notably Jeremiah 20:7, poorly translated as “You have seduced me Lord, and I was seduced”), the same few verses repeated again and again.

Toward the end of the movie, Gröning finally presents one monk who speaks for himself. Elderly and blind, he comments on his faith in the goodness of God, his docility even at having lost his sight, and his serenity in regard to his impending death. Other critics have sniffed that this is the film’s major mis-step, but I disagree. Nothing the monk says is theologically earth-shattering or artistically memorable — but that’s the point. Undergirding the texture of silence and simplicity is, of course, a simplicity of faith that might seem naive or even laughable in another context (at least, to the arthouse crowd who will see this film). But after the leavening of more than two hours of near-total silence, the monk’s childlike faith has a luminous quality that I, for one, found both satisfying and deeply consistent with the rest of the film’s “story,” if such a word could be used to describe the randomness and subtlety of the wordless narrative. The blind monk’s confession functions almost like a colophon, a momentary acknowledgement that, yes, there really is a message in this otherwise messageless experience.

After the blind monk speaks, the film revisits images that it opened with. And so, like Finnegans Wake or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Into Great Silence does not so much end as merely cycle back to where it began. A monk prays silently. Another tolls the bell. And they all gather in the darkness, punctuated only by the sanctuary light, where again they chant for half the night.

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Click here to see if you’re one of the lucky ones who will have Into Great Silence playing at a theater near you. If so, go see it. The beauty of its imagery, even though much of the footage was shot with less than ideal lighting and sometimes is overly grainy as a result, is worth the money spent to be seen on a big screen. Otherwise, the U.S. release of the film on DVD will be out in October. It’s worth the wait.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.