INTO GREAT SILENCE
The Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the legendary Carthusian Order nestled into the French Alps, was founded in the 12th century. The Carthusian monks are among the most rigorous of all Catholic orders, and the monks mostly live alone in their individual cells. In an overwhelmingly noisy world, the Carthusians seek God in solitude and silence. This film, the first ever made at the monastery, observes the daily lives of the monks.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This multi-awarded documentary is a unique work that is at once minimalist and intricate. Writer/director Philip Gröning had to wait 16 years for permission to film inside the Grande Chartreuse monastery, which is perhaps why he lingers so long there, evidently in winter and spring. He also lingers on everything he finds, from the faces of the monks to the jugs and bowls of fruit caught artistically in the light from the windows, or prayer books illuminated only by candlelight, a glass of water, a hanging towel, furniture splashed with sunlight, half hidden in shadow.
Some of these shots resemble still life paintings, and he holds the shots for 10, 15 even 20 seconds or more. He finds doors ajar just enough to catch sight of a standing figure bathed in light; he cuts to a view of the spectacular alps, or a long distance shot of the extensive monastery from a high vantage point.
There is no music score, but we get to hear the monks in church with the hauntingly beautiful Gregorian chants. There is no narration and no dialogue, although we catch a couple of readings from sacred texts and a brief conversation when the fathers take their weekly walk outside, to refresh their senses with nature. Near the end, he unexpectedly gets one of his subjects, an elderly blind monk, to speak to camera about his stoic view of death. It's a strange inclusion, which serves to highlight how little we have come to know about these monks, notwithstanding the running time of 2hrs 20mins.
The film's length is part of Gröning's technique, which is to immerse us in this still, silent and ascetic world. He is hoping it will have a meditative effect, and his shots give us pause to contemplate what we see - not just see it. I would have preferred a little more insight into the monks and their life, and less still life.
Review by Louise Keller:
This wondrously meditative documentary is an artistic portrait depicting solitude. There is a monk deep in prayer. A flame burns. Snow flakes are falling. We enter long gothic arched corridors where light filters through the windows in geometric shapes. Bells are pealing and we hear the tranquil sound of the monks' chants. Shot over a six month period inside the Grande Chartreuse, nestled in the French Alps and far away from prying eyes, Into Great Silence allows us to experience the way of life of men who dedicate their lives to God. Theirs is a life of restraint and discipline, where all their energies are channeled into their thoughts and being.
The silence that their vows demand highlights other sounds. There is the squeak of a chair. The flicker of a page being turned as a monk reads. Vegetables are chopped and wood is sawn. There are drops of rain rippling in puddles. After waiting 16 years to get permission to make his film (which he conceived, shot and edited), Philip Gröning entered the monastery and lived there for 6 months, observing what he saw. We are on the inside looking even deeper within, over the shoulder of those who live their solitary lives. Two newcomers are welcomed into the order. Their heads are shaved and vows are taken. In close up, we see faces of monks looking at the camera, expressionless.
The fact that there is no narration, no dialogue to speak of is remarkable in itself. Even more remarkable is the fact that we are entranced for 162 minutes soaking up the mood and atmosphere. Perhaps it is the film's length, the unobtrusive cinematography or the meticulously framed images that give us a sense of being there. The repetition of life's routine and lack of pace conditions us to the stillness. Images of a cup, a plate of fruit, a jug, a desk and a chair are reminiscent of an oil painting. This is an extraordinary glimpse into a unique world that is as foreign to us as the Latin verses they chant.
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INTO GREAT SILENCE (G)
Die Grosse Stille
CAST: Documentary featuring the Carthusian monks living in the Grand Chartreuse.
PRODUCER: Philip Gröning, Elda Guidinetti, Andres Pfaffli, Michael Weber
DIRECTOR: Philip Gröning
SCRIPT: Philip Gröning
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Philip Gröning
EDITOR: Philip Gröning
MUSIC: Michael Busch, Philip Gröning
PRODUCTION DESIGN: n/a
RUNNING TIME: 162 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Dendy
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 22, 2007