Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence is pure cinema at its purest and most exalted. Its achievement virtually defies commentary; a critic has only words with which to illuminate a film, but how can what is wrought in silence be illumined by words?
The title refers to the discipline of silence observed by many contemplative religious orders, and in particular to the discipline of nighttime silence, which is stricter than during the day.
Into Great Silence is an odyssey, or perhaps a pilgrimage, into a world of such silence: the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, head monastery of the Carthusian order, where Gröning received unprecedented permission to shoot in 2002. (A postscript to the film informs us that this permission came more than sixteen years after Gröning first approached the general prior with the proposal — an illuminating insight into the deliberateness of life in this world.)
Gröning stayed with the Carthusians for about half a year, observing in both senses of that word their rigorous way of life, from their discipline of silence to their grueling routine of prayer, work and sleep. Working alone, using only available light, he shot for approximately three hours a day, eventually amassing over 120 hours of material.
The formal rigor of the finished 164-minute film, mirroring the ascetic strictness of the monks themselves, offers none of the didactic or expositional context associated with typical documentaries. No voiceover narration expounds the history of the monastery buildings or the Carthusian order. No captions clarify or introduce us to the events or rituals we see.
No interview footage furnishes psychological insights into the dispositions or motivations of the monks (apart from a single brief homiletical reflection late in the film). In contrast to nearly wordless nature documentaries like Atlantis, Microcosmos and Winged Migration — or for that matter essentially the whole history of silent film — there is no nondiegetic music to provide emotional cues and mood support to the audience.
The result is more than a documentary of monastic life. It is a transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning; on man as a religious and social creature; on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.
The silence is not total; the monks must speak, to celebrate the liturgy and other special functions, to accomplish certain necessary tasks, and on weekly outings from the monastery to socialize and discuss their life together. But if the silence is not absolute, it is still the point of reference; it gives meaning to the words, not the other way around. "The symbols are not to be questioned — we are," says one monk during one of those weekly outings. The monks don't question the silence, it questions them — and us, if we let it.
For all its asceticism, Into Great Silence is an exquisitely beautiful film. Precise compositions and splendid use of light at times overtly suggest the paintings of Vermeer, while stunning use of the natural beauty around the monastery may evoke Malick or Tarkovsky.
Like the monks' lives, the film is cyclical and repetitive. Yet there is also movement, direction. Into Great Silence opens in bleak midwinter, amid austerity, frozenness, impenetrability. The silence is so profound you can hear the falling of snowflakes. The monks go about their business, but we see them as outsiders. There is no entering their world.
But there is. A pair of postulants are received as novices and take the tonsure. An eye-opening scene reveals an older monk enjoying a surreptitious bit of fun with some furry friends. There are small signs of life, of coming spring. An icebound succulent clings to life. An elderly monk walks into a snow-covered field and begins shoveling, seemingly at random; eventually we see he is clearing garden beds for planting.
At last there are dripping icicles, melting snow, running water. Spring comes to the mountains. When did we realize that the monks' lives aren't so impenetrable after all? Severity and rigor yields to familiarity, fullness, even joy. At last we see the secret of the cloistered life: In rigor and discipline there is freedom and fulfilment.
The film could end there. But it doesn't. The seasons continue to turn. And yet it is impossible to return to the early sense of severity and impenetrability. The joy of the last hour is sublime. Such is the film's achievement by this point that one sees the monastery and the very world with new eyes.
There is no short cut to this experience. Like a novice, one needs sheer time to acclimate to this world before one is ready to fully appreciate and embrace it, to experience it aright. Repetition, sameness, even a degree of monotony, is inseparable from what Into Great Silence sets out to illuminate, what it has to offer, for sameness itself is somehow transformed when we have embraced it long enough. I watched the last hour of the film in a different state of mind from the first hour and a half — and I needed every minute of that first hour and a half in order to get into the right state of mind to fully appreciate that last hour.
Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many spiritually aware films — The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors — are about God's absence or silence. Here is a film that dares to explore the possibility of finding God, of a God Who is there for those who seek Him with their whole hearts.
Into Great Silence makes no apology for the monks' traditional Catholic and Christian milieu. One of the few long sustained speeches in the film is a chanted excerpt from a patristic treatise on the Holy Spirit — a catechesis in Trinitarian theology. The film is punctuated by contemplative intertitles citing Old and New Testament scriptures as well as traditional Christian sources. Two frequently repeated texts suggest the two sides of the monastic experience. On the one hand, self-denial and severity: "Unless a man gives up all he has, he cannot be my disciple." On the other, the joy of self-abandonment to God: "O Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced." In the film's lone aside to the camera, a blind monk offers some simple but piercing observations on Christian happiness, abandonment to God's providential care, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world.
Yet Gröning isn't preaching to the choir; one need not be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to appreciate the beauty and depth the film finds in this way of life. Søren Kierkegaard, not a Catholic, vividly diagnosed the malady and the cure to which this film speaks:
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.
This film creates silence. Not just absence of noise, but inner stillness.
Another popular quotation, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, advises, "Preach the gospel at all time; when necessary, use words." Into Great Silence is the antithesis of a preachy film, yet for receptive viewers of varying creeds — or none — Gröning's achievement reveals the beauty and power of this most hidden, yet unexpectedly human, world.
Filmmakers from Bresson to Tarkovsky to Malick to the Dardenne brothers have sought creative freedom in formal austerity, assiduously stripping away the superfluous and superficial to create space for the essential, the transcendent. Into Great Silence is both a work in a kindred spirit, and an immersion in a divesting of inessentials, not merely as a creative discipline or aesthetic philosophy, but as a total commitment, a way of life, a world unto itself.
Into Great Silence offers an implicit challenge, not so much to the trappings of modernity — modern technology crops up here and there in the monks' world, occasionally to humorous effect — as to the spiritual disconnectedness and social fragmentation of a world in decay, to the postmodern incapacity for commitment and sacrifice, to the dissonance and haphazardness of life as we know it. It is not for us, perhaps, this life, yet it isn't something irrelevant or unrelated either. The silence of the monks has something to say to us, if we have ears to hear.
Click here to find showtimes and locations for the limited opening of this astounding film around the country.
You may also enjoy this interview in which director Philip Gröning discusses life at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, the presence of God in the world, and his award-winning film.