Into Great Silence (2005)

Into Great Silence (2005, not rated) is director Philip Gröning's acclaimed documentary on the Carthusian monks of the Grand Chartreuse in France. Gröning had initially approached the brothers in 1984 about the documentary but they stated that they needed more time to think about it; it wasn't until sixteen years later that they contacted Gröning and told him he could film, if he was still interested. Six months of filming and two years of editing later, and we have the 2005 masterpiece Into Great Silence, the most intimate portrait of monastic life ever put on film.

A movie about Carthusian monks has to be good, right? I grant that to some degree. Simply seeing these monks going about their daily routine, oblivious to the distractions and demands of the world, is extremely refreshing. There is no question of Catholic themes; the whole film is packed with Catholic themes: Silence. Devotion. Mortification. Perseverance in prayer. And humble acceptance of God's will, which comes through in the simple lives of the monks, but especially so in an interview with a blind monk during one of the rare speaking episodes in the film, where the blind monk says, "I often thank God that He let me be blinded. I am sure that He let this happen for the good of my soul." How contrary to the mind of the world is this simple statement of humble acceptance of God's will!

The content of the film is basically just different shots of the monks doing their daily tasks - night prayer, Mass, lunch, silent prayer in their cells, recreation outside, making new habits with the tailor, distributing food, etc. The shots are all unhurried; the director feels no need to switch from one scene to the next in any industry-standard amount of time, with the effect that we feel our sense of time thrown off. At first it is irritating; "Why does he have to film a monk praying for so long?" "Isn't this shot of the brother folding clothes already long enough?" But then as we get into the film we realize that the director is trying to initiate us into the monks own unhurried sense of time, where all that really matters is the present moment and the charity we put into our actions right now. If this is the strategy, is is pretty successful.

There is no soundtrack to the film. There are no sounds or music other than the chanting of the monks and the noise of their movements as they pray, eat, etc. There are no voices, except for some very brief interviews with a few brothers. The viewer truly is immersed in the silence of the monastery.

There is nothing really to critique here, save perhaps that there seemed to be little reason to the way the scenes were all put together. There's no sense of progression really; sometimes it feels like you are watching the raw footage and not the product of two years of editing. It came off a bit jumbled at times, and at other times I wondered if the extraordinarily long shots did not drift across the line from risque artistic to simply dull. An example of what I mean - my wife and I had to watch this film in three segments, simply because we would fall asleep if we watched it for longer than a half hour. It is that restful, and the scenes change that slowly that the mind starts to detach. My kids couldn't sit through it.

But so what? Watch it in two or three sittings if you need to. I'm being somewhat nit-picky on my critique of an overall very decent movie.The cinematography is glorious, and overall the film does an excellent job of immersing you into the silent, beautiful world of the Grand Chartreuse. I give it 2.5 out of 3 tiaras.

Review by Boniface