Thursday, March 29, 2007

More reviews of "Into the Great Silence"

Here are two other review of the unique new film on monastic life "Into the Great Silence"
[I posted a review earlier:
] This film is REALLY making an impression. It is an artistic achievement in the sense that it genuinely moves people.

The Silent Treatment
A Meditative Journey Into a Monastery's World of the Spirit
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 30, 2007; Page C05

At first, the silence feels imposing -- practically deafening -- as we watch the documentary "Into Great Silence" and the monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery praying, reading the Bible or simply sitting in quiet contemplation.

But as we become acclimated to this muted atmosphere (we have plenty of time, as the film is nearly three hours long), something extraordinary happens: Our senses sharpen. The whispering of snow outside, the occasional clearing of a throat and -- sweet mercy! -- the clanging of a bell that summons these befrocked Carthusians to prayer reach our ears with a resounding purity. We may not experience their inner glories, but when we hear the monks' Gregorian chants, it's as though we have slipped from our seats into the back pews of Chartreuse.

All movies are about transformation, in a sense, as we focus -- almost reverently -- on the glowing screen before us. But we are accustomed to our emotions being marshaled along with music, snappy editing, special effects. "Into Great Silence" subjects us, instead, to a sort of sensory deprivation -- echoing the ascetic lifestyle of these monks, who are bound to a life of near-silent contemplation aside from weekly conversational breaks.

More poetic meditation than documentary, it doesn't serenade us with music or offer helpful explanations about this 900-year-old charterhouse or the centuries of tradition that inform its rigorous rules. It doesn't even reveal the monastery's geographic location (in the French Alps, somewhere between Grenoble and Chambery).

By luring us into their hushed world, filmmaker Philip Groening -- who produced, directed, shot and edited the movie -- subtly provokes us into an active state of observation. We experience the rituals of these men's lives, our heads craned forward and our breath held so we don't disturb their devotions. And as we vicariously participate in their daily rituals, we find ourselves, quite literally, at the ground level of spiritual worship. It's hard to recall a similar documentary that brings viewers so palpably close to that sacred experience. Even such religiously themed commercial successes as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," which moved their audiences with special-effects technology and star power, seem brassy and superfluous by comparison.

With an editing scheme of rhythmic repetition, Groening helps us understand the flow of these monks' existence -- the cumulative power of ritual, repetition and reiteration -- as they seek perpetual communion with God. The monks kneel. And kneel again. Biblical quotations are presented, again and again, in intertitles ("Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced"). And chores such as washing dishes and shaving heads come in cycles, too. Over the course of the movie, snowy landscapes outside the monastery become sunlit, florid scenes, then misty vistas, before returning to snowscapes again. (It bears mentioning that when Groening requested permission to film the inhabitants of Chartreuse in 1984, they took 16 years to give him the go-ahead.)

"Into Great Silence," a 2005 German release that won a special jury prize at Sundance last year, is not all hair-shirt rigor. On weekends, the French-speaking monks take long walks through the alpine country, chattering away with an endearing fervor that brings us immense relief. And during winter, when they slither and slide down on the slopes using only their sandaled feet and behinds, we laugh with an almost spiritual release. These scenes are a poignant reminder that they're as human as we are. There is also comfort in the testimony of a blind monk who -- in the movie's only interview -- explains his faith and the easy channel to God he believes is available to everyone. His unequivocal contentment -- he's even grateful for the blindness that led him to this calling -- is an affecting message for audiences, no matter how secular. And we realize this movie has not been about zeal, devotion or faith at all, but simple happiness.

Into Great Silence (162 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema), is not rated but contains nothing objectionable. In some French and Latin with subtitles.

Into Great Silence
by Jim Emerson

We get a lot of movies about noise these days: gunshots, screams, explosions, fist thunks, thunderous roars, revving engines, squealing tires and those deafening sonic swooshes that accompany nearly every corporate logo before the feature even gets started. But we don't experience many moments of silence at the movies (and I'm not just talking about the audiences). "Into Great Silence," though devoid of narration, musical score or much at all in the way of dialogue, encourages us to listen closely: to the sound of snow falling in the mountains, a nocturnal prayer whispered in a small wooden cell with a knocking tin stove, a bell rope pulled in a chapel. Nobody yells. Nothing detonates.

The images also open up to us gradually and quietly. We're not bombarded with fusillades of shots: "Look at this! Now this! Now this!" "Into Great Silence" unfolds with its own gentle, unforced rhythms, designed, as German filmmaker Philip Groning has said, to be less a "documentary" than a meditation.

Groning spent six months living with the monks of the eremitical Carthusian order at the Grand Chartreuse Charterhouse, or monastery, in the French Alps. He brought with him only a camera and basic sound equipment -- no crew, no lights -- to capture the daily lives, prayers and routines of this most ascetic of Catholic orders, which was founded by St. Bruno in 1084. The monks, who have taken a vow of poverty, subsist on very little. They pray aloud at times and sing solemn Gregorian chants, but they rarely speak, except on their Monday walks. If cinema had existed more than a thousand years ago, this is quite like what it may have recorded.

I must confess my fondness for contemplative movies of this sort. The less frenetic onscreen activity you are forced to endure, the more you're able to notice. And the form of "Into Great Silence" is ideally suited to its subject. The monks lead a regimented existence (you can see a typical weekday schedule, and learn about their history, at their official Web site,, but time is allotted for the introspection and reflection that are essential to their devotion. You're given the opportunity to contemplate details, including ones you may overlook in the rush and routine of your own everyday life.

The film is structured, appropriately, with attention to the ritualistic and cyclical nature of these lives -- and, perhaps to a less rigorous extent, all of our lives: work, meals, chores, time alone (with God), time with others. And then there are the rhythms dictated by the passage of time: the daily progression of darkness into light and back again; the passage of the seasons; the aging of the monks' own bodies. Intertitles with biblical quotations are repeated like chants, sometimes followed by three close-ups of monks looking into the camera. There's so much to watch and listen to.

In one of the few segments where anyone speaks, a monk says, "In God there is no past. There is only the present." Oddly, or not, watching this movie I was reminded of the final part of "2001: A Space Odyssey," where Keir Dullea silently grows old in a mysteriously sterile 18th century habitat. One day, while eating, he knocks over a glass, and it shatters on the floor. In the next moment, he is much older. How much time has passed in the interim? The monks' (and the film's) conception of time is similarly static. Groning approached the Carthusians for permission to shoot the film in 1984, and they said they weren't quite ready. Sixteen years later, they said they were.

So, what happens in the course of the picture? As you would expect, everything and nothing. You get the feeling that whatever you witness has probably happened countless times before. Novices are admitted. A clock is re-set, then straightened. On one sunny walk, there's a discussion about the moral implications of hand-washing: how it should be done, and how much. On another walk, the monks slide down a snowy slope. Those are among the action-packed highlights.

But they are not what "Into Great Silence" is about. A movie is always about what happens to you as you watch it, and Groning's stated intention was to entice the viewer to assemble his or her own experience of the film by asking questions and making discoveries as it unreels. Sometimes these questions are elemental: What am I looking at? Is it day or night? At other moments they are experiential: What task or ritual is this? Where are they going? And at others they are more existential: What does it take to find meaning in the physical and psychological discipline of such a life? Are the monks happy, or content? What does the concept of "happiness" mean in this context?

Each of us is left to discover the answers for ourselves.

UPDATE: Yet one MORE review

'Into Great Silence': Why now?
By NANCY KLEIN MAGUIRE, National Catholic Reporter, April 4, 2007

In February 1999, I started to research An Infinity of Little Hours, a book about the life of Carthusian hermit monks. That same year, the reverend father of the Grande Chartreuse, the headquarters of the order in France, called Philip Gröning to ask him to film a documentary on the same subject. Mr. Gröning had proposed the project in 1984. In 2006, Mr. Gröning released "Into Great Silence," capturing the life of the Carthusian monks in images (NCR, March 23). I like to think that my book, An Infinity of Little Hours, provides the libretto for Mr. Gröning’s music of Carthusian life.

In 1084, St. Bruno initiated an order of hermits who lived in community. He was serious about the hermit part. While not exactly unfriendly, these hermits do not have hospitality or public relations on their agenda. Historically, the order is so protective of its privacy that it is even averse to canonizing its members. Their standard response to visitors is to momentarily slide back the grill in their entrance door, saying: "We do not allow visitors."

The Carthusian order has been so reclusive that few people, even the most devout Catholics, have heard of them.

Last February, Mr. Gröning and I had a chance to compare notes about these hermit monks. When Mr. Gröning started shooting in 2000, the reverend father looked at him and said, "We are starting a risky thing." Mr. Gröning felt intimidated when he first entered the cloistered charterhouse (monastery); he was afraid that he couldn’t possibly capture the Carthusian life. But, while making the film, he lived the life of a monk for five months, following the same regimen as any new recruit to the order. He went to church, took care of his garden, cleaned his clothes, went on the weekly walk and did all the other monk jobs.

Although the monks talk only twice a week, he became close friends with them. "They let me know they liked me by smiles and other nonverbal gestures." And, of course, on the weekly walk, he could talk to them. Several times in the film, Mr. Gröning’s camera zeros in for 20-second portraits of individual monks. The eyes of the monks tell the story. I was especially intrigued by the monk who didn’t blink. These portraits are so intimate that they seem to me an invasion of privacy of these reclusive men. Yet Mr. Gröning assured me, "There was complete trust between the monks and myself. I do not feel that their privacy was invaded. I would leave a note and ask if I could take a portrait at a specific time." In one shot, a monk conspiratorially glances toward the camera with a slight smile.

Mr. Gröning uses no narrative, no explanatory voiceover, and about two minutes of dialogue. Because Mr. Gröning decided not to comment during this film, the viewer hears the sounds of the cook chopping celery, the elderly gardener digging a spring garden groaning with the exertion, the monks sawing wood for their stoves, wooden spoons clanking against metal bowls, scissors cutting into new fabric, and the eternal rustling of pages. Underneath these sounds, the viewer senses a palpable silence.

Mr. Gröning was not allowed to use artificial lights, so the film alternates between barely-seen candlelight images and clear shots, such as pages of Gregorian chant scrolling across the screen or sharp images of the Grande Chartreuse itself. Scenes of normal human life, monks eating in their cells, getting their heads shaved, feeding cats, and even cows going through the cloister, are mixed with very arcane scenes: for example, an eerie shot of the monks praying Night Office in a dark church during the middle of the night.

To remind the viewer of the present time, Mr. Gröning twice shows an airplane flying above the charterhouse. By this time, I was so immersed in the film that I thought the plane could be a bird. In another scene, Mr. Gröning shows a noisy group of teenagers outside the charterhouse trying to see what goes on inside. When Mr. Gröning worried that he didn’t have enough scenes, "a shot would be right there in front of me."

Using captions and subtitles, Mr. Gröning repeats verses from the Bible throughout the film, particularly the verse, "Oh Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced." The repetition suggests the timelessness of the monks’ lives and the tranquility in their portraits. Only once, near the end of the film, does a monk address the camera directly. Mr. Gröning chose a very elderly, blind monk who wears a hearing aid. Mr. Gröning says he chose the monk, not because he was blind, but because his face looks so happy in spite of his handicaps. The monk says:
"One should have no fear of death. On the contrary, it is a great joy to find a Father once again. … And when God sees us he always sees our entire life. And because he is an infinitely good being he eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore, there is no cause for worry."

The blind monk epitomizes the meaning of the charterhouse.

Mr. Gröning’s film does not have a beginning, middle, or end. The monk lives outside of time, and "Into Great Silence" is timeless.

By the time I watched the film for the fifth time, I knew that "Into Great Silence" had become part of my life. Time cycles around the monks and the viewer: We see the heavy snows of the French Alps engulfing the monastery, a glorious image of crocuses emerging from the snow, the lush greenery of summer, then back to the scenes of falling snow.

The result is a stunning immersion in Carthusian life. Mr. Gröning refers to himself as a documentary filmmaker, but above all, he is an artist. "Into Great Silence," in a sense, is a series of stills skillfully placed, rather than a film. Mr. Gröning did not want to create a documentary about the monastery, he "wanted to create the monastery."
"I wanted the film to become a monastery." And it does.

Why now? In his splendid New York Times review, A.O. Scott comments that Mr. Gröning is not interested in the history of the order, nor in why men come or leave; he is not concerned with the biographies of the men.

Before the Reformation, Carthusians were well-known; since then, they have become nearly invisible. Outsiders are rarely allowed into the charterhouse and never inside the hermits’ cells, two-story individual dwellings.

Even consultants, such as theologians, psychiatrists, or doctors, are not allowed to live "in cell." This has been a sine qua non of the order -- no one but potential recruits can live in cell. Yet Mr. Gröning lived in cell. In a conversation with him, the reverend father referred to the Carthusian mission as that of a lighthouse. In a similar vein, Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century Danish philosopher, said:

Of this there is no doubt, our age and Protestants in general may need the monastery again, or wish it were there. The monastery is an essential dialectical element in Christianity. We therefore need it out there like a navigational buoy at sea in order to see where we are, even though I myself would not enter it. But if there really is true Christianity in every generation, there must also be individuals who have this need.

John Morrill, a Cambridge historian, commented on my book: "An Infinity of Little Hours will make most readers recognize the empty plenty with which we crowd our own lives." With sympathy, the film’s blind monk says, "It is a pity that the world has lost all sense of God."

Another way of looking at this question of "why now?" is St. Bruno’s reason for seeking solitude. Weary of the corruption in the Catholic church of his time, he decided to find a way to go directly to God. Perhaps we also want a less institutional, more direct way to God, some inner space, some quiet. After years of watching atrocities on television, we need a safe place.

When I left Parkminster, a charterhouse in England I visited, for the first time, I sensed that something was missing there. Then I realized that I had been missing anxiety. Mr. Gröning had the same experience at the Grande Chartreuse. The monks have no fear. Mr. Gröning hopes that his audience "will realize that this way of life exists and perhaps part of it can be applied outside the monastery."

Filming "Into Great Silence" gave Mr. Gröning more trust that things would go the right way. At the end of my interview, I asked, "What question haven’t I asked that you would like to answer?" He responded, "There is no question that I haven’t been asked about this film."
Mr. Scott in The New York Times hesitates to call "Into Great Silence" one of the best films of the year. "I prefer to think of it as an antidote to all of the others." I agree. The film is addictive -- each time I watch it, I know that I will need to watch it again, to return to life in the charterhouse.

Nancy Klein Maguire is the author of An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order, reviewed by art historian Sr. Wendy Beckett in the July 28, 2006, issue of NCR.

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