Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Into Great Silence

On Christmas Day I completed watching the award winning documentary Into Great Silence. German film maker Philip Gröning spent six months in the Grande Chartreuse Monastery located deep inside the French Alps, and chronicled the daily routine of Carthusian Monks. Almost a thousand years old, and one of the most austere monasteries in the world, the monastic idiosyncrasies of Grande Chartreuse left me speechless. The prayer life of these monks is fascinating.

Check out the trailer to this documentary.

This is the synopsis of the film as posted on the Zeitgeist Films website:

Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the world’s most austere monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks’ quarters for six months—filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one—it has no score, no voice over and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, INTO GREAT SILENCE dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative theatrical experience for all.

Into Great Silence is a documentary that is distinctive and unconventional, quite appropriate given the unique and extraordinary charism of the Carthusian tradition. In this film you will find none of the traditional elements that go into film-making. As the Zeitgesit synopsis mentions, there is no score, no narration, no computer graphics, nothing that can take attention away from the palpable silence of the monastic environment. What you will see and hear is the great silence of the monastery, and the perpetual presence of God. You will see these men pray, work, take care of their sick and elderly, as well as maintain and sustain their monastery. On the second disc of the DVD there is a segment that focuses on the Carthusian manufacture of Chartreuse, a liquor made by the monks and named after the monastery (recipe is a secret).

Carthusian monks live at the speed of the present. They are in no rush to get anywhere.

One of the most memorable scenes in the documentary comes when an elderly, blind monk is interviewed. He speaks as someone of unshakable faith as he expresses no fear of death, disappointment over an irreligious world, and gratitude for the loss of his vision - which he sees as God's handiwork towards the unfolding of his salvation. There is a certain inner-beauty that flows gracefully from him as he breaks his monastic silence and speaks during this interview. An extended version of this exchange can be found in the second disc of the DVD.

Some potential flaws viewers may find with this documentary is the fact that there is no narration whatsoever. Director Philip Gröning wanted to preserve the silence and the stillness of the monastic environment, so a narrator was omitted from the film - which could have facilitated understanding of the monk's daily routine. There are also sustained facial close-ups of some of the monks. I'm not sure the purpose behind these close-ups, but I'm guessing Gröning wanted to the viewer to study the faces of the monks as a way of getting to know them.

Overall, Into great Silence is a fantastic recapitulation of the austere monasticism of Carthusian monks. It delves deeply into the daily routines of contemplatives blessed with a unique and exceptional vocation. If you are interested in the contemplative practices of Catholic monks, you will enjoy this film immensely.


Jaimie said...

That looks fascinating! I have such a deep respect and awe for monks that live such a simple, faith-filled life. I hope to watch the entire film someday. Thanks for the review!

Thom said...

I've been wanting to see this for a while. I need to make my way to Blockbuster.