Into Great Silence (2005)

The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create Silence.

- Soren Kierkegaard

… surrender to Into Great Silence as you would to a piece of music, noting the repetitions and variations, encountering surprises just when you think you’ve figured out the pattern. By the end, what you have learned is impossible to sum up, but your sense of the world is nonetheless perceptibly altered.

I hesitate, given the early date and the project’s modesty, to call Into Great Silence one of the best films of the year. I prefer to think of it as the antidote to all of the others.

- A. O. Scott

Need a little peace and quiet?

How about a life-changing spiritual retreat?

German filmmaker Philip Gröning is inviting you on a journey no filmmaker has taken before… a venture into the extraordinary Grande Chartreuse monastery to spend time in meditation and prayer with the Carthusian monks, the strictest order of the Catholic Church.

Now wait a minute. If we’re to believe the movies we’ve seen, monks are child abusers! They lash their own backs in secret, and murmur sinister chants. They conspire to steal our freedoms and kill our imaginations. They seek to cut us off from any sort of pleasure. Right?

No, of course not. While Hollywood loves to take rare exceptions to the rule and exaggerate them as if they were the norm, the truth is that most Christian monks are sincere, humble, God-fearing people who have devoted their lives to asking God to give his mercy to all of us. And Into Great Silence is a powerful work that opens up their private, prayerful world.

You’ll want to bring a pot of coffee. Gröning’s movie will test your endurance. Do you have the patience to apply yourself to three hours of quiet? The men in front of the camera do this all day, every day.

And they aren’t really interested in being appreciated or understood. Gröning asked for the monk’s permission to film them back in 1984. Almost 20 years later, they called him back and said, “We’re ready.” So he packed up his cameras and moved in. And he discovered more than ponderous men in robes. He found a place of such breathtaking natural beauty that it just might inspire you to prayers of thanksgiving. When dazzled by the glory of the French Alps, what else can we do but praise the Lord?

Amidst those magnificent mountains, which tower over this medieval enclave, the monks live in perpetual praise and intercession. Gröning takes the time to observe their faces in long, silent portraits — unique, unforgettable faceswhich express their deep, unspoken longings for communion with God.

Gröning’s subjects have taken a vow of silence; we only hear their voices during prayer, chants, and an occasional “day off” when they can chat. But the quiet leaves us profoundly aware of what these men sacrifice, and it may reveal just a taste of what they gain.

And what do they gain?

I’m reminded of a verse by G.K. Chesterton:

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

By daily discipline, they come to accept a measure of humility, and a sense of gratitude, beyond the grasp of most of us who live in a culture designed to address our appetites.

And yet they begin to apprehend the terrible enormity of God’s presence, which speaks through “silent” incarnation. You can see a monk’s contentment as he sits and slices an apple, sitting in an open door and gazing out at the landscape. And you can see the frightful struggle of such attentiveness written in the lines on each face.

I cannot shake what film critic Annie Frisbie wrote after seeing the movie: “If God does not exist, if the LORD did not speak, if the Jesus they pray to is not the same LORD that spoke to Moses from the bush and to Job from the whirlwind, then these men have wasted their lives.”

Written (in English and Latin, with English subtitles), produced, directed and edited by Philip Gröning;director of photography – Philip Gröning. Zeitgeist Films. 162 minutes. This film is not rated.


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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has two passions: writing fiction, and celebrating art — music, cinema, photography, literature — through writing and teaching. He is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” — Through a Screen Darkly. And his four-novel fantasy series, The Auralia Thread, which begins with Auralia's Colors, was published by Random House. He speaks at universities and conferences around the world about understanding art through eyes of faith. He is earning his MFA in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University, where he has worked for 11 years as an editor, writer, and communications project manager. His work has been recognized in The New Yorker, TIME, The Seattle Times, IMAGE, Ravi Zacharias International — and Christianity Today, where he served as a film journalist for more than a decade. He recently began a weekly column called "Listening Closer" for Christ and Pop Culture.