Sunday, May 20, 2007

Movie recommendation: Into Great Silence

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005)
directed by Philip Gröning
French and Latin with English subtitles
169 minutes

Into Great Silence is a documentary film about the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery. I was eager to see this film, about which I've read rave reviews. My wife Elaine and I went to see it yesterday, and we were disappointed, for similar reasons. I think that there are two main problems.

One: There is no narrative structure. That absence (along with the absence of a narrator) is deliberate, and it follows from the filmmaker's avowed intention to make the film "a monastery," allowing the viewer to enter into the possibilities of contemplation. But monastic life is about structure: the days follow a pattern; the year follows a pattern; and the monks have dedicated themselves to a faith that makes all human lives parts of one great narrative pattern. The absence of narrative structure makes it impossible to grasp the pattern of these monks' days and nights. Most conspicuously missing is any indication of one of the greatest difficulties of Carthusian life: the night office, which leaves monks perpetually without the benefit of a night's uninterrupted sleep. Gröning's image-oriented filmmaking, which returns again and again to a handful of motifs -- candles burning, water dripping, dishes drying, grass blowing -- might work well over an hour or so, but a film of this length needs something more. The constant cuts begin to feel both arbitrary and predictable: it's time once again for something completely different.

Two: The emphasis falls on externals. The film is beautiful to look at. But looking at is not the same as seeing into. Many scenes from the film have the beauty of upscale catalogue photography: that stone! that wood! that simple kitchenware! those natural fibers! that Vermeer lighting! But there's very little to allow a viewer entry into the lives of the film's subjects. We see, say, a monk sitting with an open book. Is he learning Latin? Studying Aquinas? Doing devotional reading? We don't know. We see a monk writing in Spanish. A letter? A translation? We don't know. Carthusian monks have more important things to do than talk about themselves to documentary filmmakers, to be sure. But by the end of the film we have almost no idea of what distinguishes these men from one another, what kinds of lives they once led, what brought them to their lives as Carthusians. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, says somewhere that "Our real journey in life is interior." This film gives us almost no chance to see into these monks' journeys.

There are wonderful moments: the benevolent looks on the faces of the older monks as they welcome two novices (one of whom soon disappears from the film), the brief intimacies of barbering, the strenuous efforts of a bent, bearded monk to remove snow from flowerbeds and debris from a stream. I'd recommend the film to any viewer: it's almost certainly the only chance anyone outside a Carthusian monastery will have to see the daily lives of the monks. But Into Great Silence seems finally to be much more about filmmaking than about the lives of its subjects.

Into Great Silence (The film's website)

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