Commonweal on “Into Great Silence”

The new issue of Commonweal includes one columnist’s thoughts on Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence and the Viriginia Tech massacre. The writer (I can’t find his name on the page) says,

The film has been a huge hit, not only in New York but also in allegedly secular Europe. Its success reminds me of the rave reviews given to Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful, quiet, and unabashedly Christian novel Gilead. There is a spiritual hunger that goes deep. Some of its expressions can be shallow, but the need is heartfelt and real. Many churches may not meet it, but some places and ways of life (monasteries and monasticism, for example) attract people because they offer the hope that there is an answer to an eternal, deeply felt need.

Not everyone is so enchanted by the film. Susan Dunne (Baltimore Sun) complains,

… [T]ry as I might, I could not love it, because as a piece of cinema, Into Great Silence would try the patience of a saint. … It is clear that Groning is using this structure to get viewers into the same simple, contemplative frame of mind in which the monks live day to day. But the fact is that men enter ascetic monasteries because they are that sort of person already, and in that they are uncommon. Expecting filmgoers to be that sort of person, for 164 minutes no less, is asking too much.

Her conclusion:

…this is a monastery; there aren’t 164 minutes worth of things to see.

Well, not unless you’re looking closely.

I’m sorry that the film proved so frustrating for Susan, but I’m also surprised that, as a film critic, she found it so taxing. Maybe she’ll prefer the nearly three hours of action in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, where there’s more stuff to look at in the first ten minutes than Into Great Silence can find in three hours. But will Pirates serve up even a fraction of the food for thought offered by Silence?

Gröning’s film isn’t about what we see, but rather… how we see it.

I don’t think Gröning “expects” anything. He invites. Those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see… let them hear and see. Those who have patience… let them be blessed. Those who don’t, let them miss out.

In fact, I think it would be interesting to read Susan’s comments again, and then read all of the quotes collected and arranged so perfectly last Thursday at Opus, right here.

Am I being too harsh?

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  • I’m really surprised that no one besides me (Christians, that is) cared about the sloppy translation of “I am who I am” into “I am the one who is.” To me, it was the culminating point of the movie–the main theme of the symphony–and such mistranslation is really unconscionable. I wrote about it on House Next Door (which you linked to originally-thanks!) and I guess I thought I wouldn’t be the only Christian who saw the movie and had that issue. Here’s a link to my piece which explains my point further:

  • petertchattaway

    Susan Dunne may have a point, inasmuch as theatres are not monasteries and filmgoers are not (normally) monks. Those who seek solitude and contemplation will tend to look for it — and the question that has lingered in *my* mind ever since I saw a screener of this film nearly a year ago is why anyone would go to the *theatre* for this silent experience when one can go to an actual monastery or even, on some occasions, a church. I have taken part in three-hour religious services — particularly on Holy Friday, when we mourn the death of Jesus — and I agree that people who don’t have the patience for that sort of experience are missing out on something. But I am not entirely sure that going to see a three-hour movie *about* religious services would offer as interesting or even nourishing an experience — especially if there are no candles in the theatre! (What can I say, I like candles.)

    But maybe, in focusing on the parallels between theatrical ritual and religious ritual, I am missing the point. If the purpose of the film is to get us to *look at* things, then this may not really be all that much like a religious ceremony after all.

    And of course, seeing this film on video would be yet another entirely different experience, because friends can drop by and the phone can ring and the children can play at your feet and the pictures on the wall can catch your eye during the more boring bits of the film, etc., etc., etc. And I think watching this film in pieces, at home, would kind of miss the whole point of the movie. You can watch a typical narrative movie in pieces, the same way you can read a book a few chapters at a time. But I think *this* movie is meant to be experienced all in one sitting.