Into Great Silence
For some, the idea of silence invokes romantic pictures of peace and bliss, yet it is a romantic notion that many find extremely difficult to bear in reality. For most, silence, if practiced, is done in short bursts.
While some of us romantically dream of spaces dedicated to silent contemplation, others live it. Not as some romantic notion, nor as a scheduled space taken advantage of from time to time, but as a daily reality lived out mostly in solitude after vowing to do so for life.
Such are the lives of the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery nestled in the beautiful French Alps, as depicted in the film Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence).
Into Great Silence is a film that most people would categorise in the documentary genre as it factually depicts the day to day lives of the monks. I believe it deserves a different type of categorization though. We will get to that shortly.
This is a distinct film. In 1984, Philip Groening (the director) contacted the monastery to gain permission to enter and film the lives of the monks in order to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him.16 years later they replied and said they were ready, but his entry into the monastery came with conditions.
No artificial lighting was to be used. No other crew were allowed in the living quarters. No soundtrack was to be added and no narration was to be used either. What results is a nearly 3 hour movie dominated by silence and beautiful, often grainy, imagery.
To depict and give the viewer a feel and understanding of the monk’s lives with no narration requires the director to be masterful in the use of image and editing. The focus most certainly becomes the story told by the sequence and pace of the images.
Through the imagery and the editing of sequence, pace, rhythm and routine are displayed beautifully. What one gets a sense of is not only silence, but time – sacred time.
The imagery is beautiful and works through the seasons in sequence, drawing on the beautiful imagery of the French Alps to convey the time of year. Within this daily routine of the monks is played out, including prayers, meals and the rare moments of interaction.
The pace is slow – painfully so at the beginning as one expects music, narration and faster cuts between shots. An introverted examination of the pain one feels as the film moves though, will quickly reveal that the pace of the movie acts as a window into our own rushed lives where the expectation is noise and hectic activity.
Once one is able to move past this painful reaction to the pace of the film and embrace the rhythm and silence of the film, a new world is opened to the viewer. I started to hear the snow falling, the sounds of shuffled steps as the monks walked and the razor as their hair was cut offered a beautiful sound. I noticed the sound of the cutting of fabric, coughs, wind. In the silence a whole new world of sound broke forth.
I also dramatically noticed my own heightened awareness and slowed pace at the end of the film. My state had been changed. I had not just watched a documentary, I had been drawn into a meditative exercise and that is how I would categorise it.
Into Great Silence is not just a film, it is a welcoming into sacred space and time. It is a film that not only depicts the lives of the monks throughout the days, weeks and seasons, but invites the viewer to join the pace of that life for three hours. It is an invitation to silent meditation.
It is intimate. This is the first cinematic window into the lives of these monks and it may well be the only one ever to be done. It shows their initiation, their daily routine, their innocence and their joy as they are able to talk together once per week. It shows their humility, their wonder and their solitude; yet in their solitude it shows the strength of their community.
It revealed to me how strange it is to live in a city where you can be surrounded by people, free to live life communicating with them, yet be alone. Contrasted against this, these monks live a vow of silence where they can only talk to each other once a week and they spend most of their time in solitude, yet the film shows their bond and their community to be strong.
Into Great Silence is stunning. It is both painful and beautiful at the same time. Into Great Silence is to the world of film, what Michael Angelo’s Sistine Chapel is to painted art. There is no comparison.
If you see it on DVD, I would encourage you to get the 2 disc edition with all the special features that will educate you on the Carthusian order, give you extra footage and also show you various notes etc involved in making the film. All the special features maintain the silence as well.
Reviewed by: Frank Ritchie.
Rating: G – Suitable for General Audiences.
Duration: 162 mins.
Director: Philip Gröning.
Distributor: Magna Pacific.
Release Date: Out Now.