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I asked a friend if he wanted to borrow this DVD, but he said he had already seen the movie, and if he never saw another 20-minute scene of some old monk cutting flannel in his life, it would too soon. I can sympathize; when I first agreed to see the movie in a movie theatre, I was dreading it. Two hours and forty minutes of life in a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps, and no dialog. But I was visiting my mother, and she wanted to see it. She's in her seventies, and has increasing problems with her memory and her hearing, so she does not do well with most films, finding them difficult to follow. That's not really an issue with Into Great Silence which has the most minimal narrative. We see one man become a monk and become accommodated to his new life. We see others perform the daily rituals and their chores. We see some of the older monks adopt a stoic attitude toward their mortality. And we see some of the monks relaxing and playing in the snow. My mother loved the film for its beauty and its stillness, and I think she was right. I've had the DVD playing repeatedly in the background, and I've played it many times now. It is best appreciated as a meditative work, akin to some of the best ambient music. One might compare it to Godfrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi, which has a Phillip Glass soundtrack, although Reggio's film is a technicolor rush compared to Groning's examination of monastic life in snow-covered mountains. We hear prayers, singing of religious texts, and see occasional religious services. Very occasionally a monk will say something. Even though the film's title highlights silence, the film itself actually focuses on sounds, but on sounds we rarely notice: the opening and closing of doors in a large stone building; the falling of snow, the melting of snow, walking in snow, shoveling snow, cutting cloth, and the coughing and grunting of elderly men. The cinematography is equally unusual, focusing on people's faces for a long time, showing the surface of a puddle of water as it rains, or showing the monks walking down long corridors. The lighting is spectacular, with beams of sunlight falling into dark rooms, sunlight coming through dense tree branches, or grainy film showing the monks sitting during prayers.
Director Philip Gröning turns the religious practice of the monks into a highly aesthetic experience, showing a great respect for their asceticism. It is easy to enjoy the beauty of the film, especially if one appreciates the ambient genre. The film also raises questions about the quality of modern life through its emphasis on an utterly different way of life that is little different from monastic life several centuries ago. Further, it raises questions about what it means to devote one's life to God, and whether the monastic life is worthwhile. Even for all its beauty, this film will make most people wonder what on earth could drive a person to such a radical retreat from modern life and rejection of the benefits of modern technology.
The 2 DVD packages highlights the aesthetic side of the film. The second DVD has a wonderful audio gallery of sounds from each of the twelve months of the year, including February: Sanctus and Evening Bells; April: Fire in the Stove, in the Cell; August: The Rain; and December: Fire in the Stove. There are four additional scenes: Making Chartreuse Liqueur, Preparing the Shaving Room, Summer Day of a Novice, and Blink Mon's Interview (extended version), which add up to about 55 additional minutes. There is also a 53-minute segment of the Night Office, one of the eight rituals the monks perform each day. The chanting of the monks is accompanied with pictures of a candle burning and the Latin text of the words they are singing. In addition, there are slides with text about the Carthusians, an 8-minute statement about the monastic life by a Cardinal, and a 5-minutes piece showing some of the making of the film, which is not very illuminating.
Some may find Into Great Silence a deeply spiritual experience, especially if they come to the film with religious convictions. However, it can be equally enjoyed and appreciated as an aesthetic work, without cheapening or undermining the spiritual element. Viewers may not want to devote their attention on the DVD exclusively, but rather have it playing while they carry out other tasks. One might worry that this turns it into background sound and pretty pictures, but this is not an inevitable result. The film carries with it a certain depth and resonance, so having it playing while one is working on other activities has a calming effect, and experiencing it repeatedly can heighten one's appreciation of it. Into Great Silence is a very unusual and distinctive film, and is certainly a remarkable achievement.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.