Then the Lord said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake there was fire--but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whisper.
I Kings, 19: 11-12
More visual meditation than documentary, Philip Gröning's Into Great Silence (Große Stille, Die) transports viewers to the spiritual realm—without imposing narration, archival footage, or soundtrack. Viewers are prayerfully immersed into the daily life of the Grande Chartreuse monastery along with two young novices, who receive their initial head shearing. Nuzzled comfortably in the picturesque French Alps, the ascetic monastery silently reigns as the main "character" of the film, gently revealing mesmerizing nuances of light and shadow during its 162 minute running time.
Naturally, the film's glacial pace will never appeal to the masses, and I found it ironic that I was finally able to view this long anticipated film on the very day that Spider-Man 3 opened wide. Only a dozen attended the screening I attended, and I still found myself irritated at a few audience members—the cell phone that broke the silence, the two ladies who couldn't stop commenting on the monks' appearance and started laughing every time a cat or cow appeared, and the snoring soul in the upper left. (You tend to notice these disturbances more during quiet contemplation):
"Only in complete silence, one starts to hear.
Only when language resigns, one starts to see."
I look forward to purchasing the DVD when it's released this coming fall, but there's certainly major reasons for viewing on the big screen. Gröning's camera artfully discovers ethereal imagery throughout. Among my favorites unfolds during a soothing shower—ripples silently mesmerize in shimmering blacks and whites, much like Satyajit Ray's water striders in Pather Panchali. Shadows figure prominently—a fountain of holy water is one of many anchors, as are darkened gathering spaces penetrated by a single red votive candle and solitary reading lamps that accompany sparse human chanting. While repetitious to establish the steady rhythms of monastic life, each scene remains slightly different, as the camera discovers new angles and lighting to illuminate fresh nuances. As one of the frequently repeated verses states: "O Lord, you have seduced me. I was seduced."
Those open to the experience will also find themselves captivated. It's the closest most of us will ever come to living the life of asceticism without fully committing to the lifestyle. Credit Gröning's patience and vision for granting unprecedented access to this world. The German filmmaker first wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to feature them in a documentary in 1984, to which they replied that they would get back to him Sixteen years later, they finally granted permission, and Gröning spent nearly six months in 2002 living in the monastery and following their daily rituals and routines with his hand held camera—we be grateful that technological advances of high definition cameras allow more intimacy into this very different reality than would've been available before. Gröning also incorporates some grainy Super 8 footage for additional texture.
We can also thank the monastery for "imposing" essentially Dogme restrictions on the filmmaker because this actually frees him to make a more powerful film. The director states:
The Grande Chartreuse imposed no conditions except: No artificial light, no additional music, no commentaries. No additional team, just me. These conditions corresponded exactly with my original concept and thus were hardly a restriction to me.
This strict code along with Gröning's adherence to a strict structural code that incorporates the rhythms of the four seasons, repetitious daily routines, and restrained vocals transforms the simple imagery into transcendent and unforgettable cinema. Not intended for everyone, those seeking contemplative fare will not be disappointed. Into Great Silence profoundly presents strong evidence that "less" is often "more." The visual meditation allows viewers to approach the material greatly unfettered from deliberate manipulation; it's possible that many will come in touch with what these remarkable monks seek as well—namely a desire to draw closer to God.