It is a daunting task to write about a film which has no plot, virtually no dialogue, no narration, and no non-diagetic music. Having seen Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence)
a couple nights ago, I must try.
With many folks in town bitching
about Sundance's pricing scheme, I for one was happy that the film played there. With a running time of nearly 3 hours, the extra leg room and comfy chairs were most welcome. Also welcome was the surprise I received upon punching the computer screen to select my reserved seat. I figured I'd be virtually alone but there were about 30 other folks at the showing. A pittance compared to the numbers that Michael Moore's latest will draw today but it was heartening to see that a small crowd of other folks were up for a cinematic challenge.
I recently whined
about Hollywood blockbusters and actually watched a bit of the first Fantastic Four film last weekend. I am convinced that this mental malaise put me in the right frame of mind for Into Great Silence
as it was the perfect antidote to the blockbusters and I just loved it. There were no scenes of monks outrunning a ball of flame nor any CGI sidekicks to disturb the calm, measured contemplation of the film. A quick & easy way to think about the movie is that it is akin to the works of Andrei Tarkovsky
and Terrence Malick
. Take Malick's The New World
and then exorcise the music and the plot. This leaves only the settlers building and living in Jamestown and the beautiful nature shots. This is Into Great Silence
The film features the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery which is located up in the French Alps. Director Philip Gröning follows the cinema verite
approach by acting as a fly on the wall. He initially approached them in 1984 and was told "we'll get back to you". Sixteen years later they did and Gröning spent a total of six months living amongst the monks with his camera and sound equipment as he documented their quotidian routine of prayer, eating, chopping wood, and occasionally socializing. There is a complete absence of exposition – no history of the order or the monastery is given nor are there interviews allowing the monks to elaborate on their way of life. But when you find out that the order was founded in 1084, one assumes that life at the Grande Chartreuse monastery carries on in much the same way it has for centuries.
Gröning's subjects have taken a vow of virtual silence which allows them to speak only outside the monastery one day a week. At the film's opening, we see one of the monks kneeling in silent prayer with only the sounds of the creaky wooden floors emanating from the soundtrack. I don't think I was ever so aware of the normal sounds of my fellow moviegoers in my entire life. Every time someone moved in his/her seat or crunched on a snack, it pierced the silence. For my part, merely sipping on an orange soda became an act of extreme self-consciousness.
Seeing the man praying in the age-old monastery immediately brought one of my favorite films to mind - The Name of the Rose
. I waited for someone to be murdered over a book but it was not to be. Having gotten over that, I then waited for some hint of explanation, some background on what and who I was watching. But that never came either. Eventually I was able to sit back and watch without much inquisitiveness nagging at me.
Time passes slowly when you lead an eremitical life but it does pass. In one scene a monk is shown measuring and cutting cloth and you can tell he is making a robe. It is only much later that we see two acolytes being welcomed into the fold and part of this involves the monk with the haberdashery skills giving one of the novices his robe. On a grander scale, the film begins in the winter as a blizzard rages, progresses through spring and summer, and then ends when there is snow on the ground once more. The gentle flow of the year is shown with exterior scenes. In one, a monk is seen digging out a couple trenches in the monastery's yard. When he's completed this task, he makes his way to a shed and begins thumbing through packets of seeds. Spring is anon. The passage of time is also shown by some incredibly beautiful shots where the camera appears to be on an adjacent hill or perhaps atop the monastery's wall. The buildings are in the foreground while the towering mountains and a vast sky lingers in the back. Using time-lapse cinematography, we watch as the stars hastily move across the firmament. These shots are simply sublime. On the one hand, the speeded-up footage runs counter to scenes inside the monastery where everything is slow & deliberate. On the other, they mirror the simplicity of the hermetic life.
One scene which sticks in my head is when the monks gather for what I presume to be the Midnight Office. The camera is up looking down as they line the walls of the darkened chapel. (I think it's the chapel, anyway.) a couple small overhead lights appear as prayer/songbooks are referenced. The lights go out one followed by the other and they begin their singing. The only light is a small candle in a red glass. The voices all singing in Latin are hauntingly beautiful and Gröning cuts to some extreme close-ups of the candle that were shot in grainy Super-8 that looked like something out of David Lynch's Inland Empire
. I found this scene to be extremely moving for reasons I can't explain.
There are some light-hearted moments as well. I suspect everyone in the audience was surprised to see one of the monks at his desk surrounded by paperwork and pecking away on a laptop. While the general austerity of life in a monastery has remained the same over several centuries, modern life still makes demands of us, even monks sequestered in the Alps. In another scene we see that winter has returned. It is a gorgeous sunny day and the monks are out sledding. We seeing them sliding down a hill, often times with no sled. One of them even tries to push another into the snow.
One of the great virtues of Into Great Silence
is that it doesn't try to prod the viewer into any great insights or explanations of why the inhabitants of the Grande Chartreuse have chosen the monastic life. One is forced to experience a simulacrum of it and to decide for oneself. Being an atheist, I can only surmise that, for the monks, the truest path to their god is to be found in their quotidian routine that is played out beneath the gentle sidereal rhythms which gives us day and night and passes winter into spring.
When I got home, I told my roommate Stevie a bit about the film and he asked if they were the same monks that make a certain liquor. I told him that I didn’t think so but later found out that, yes indeed, these same men do make that alcoholic beverage
named after their monastery. Hopefully some footage of this will appear on the DVD.