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From its earliest days, cinema has been used to suggest movement. The speed limit has been boosted significantly in the MTV and videogame epoch, but there is another tradition—a much less lucrative one, to be sure—of using film to slow us down in search of a sort of meditative state. Filmed in a picturesque Carthusian monastery high in the French Alps, German filmmaker Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence observes an abstruse, ascetic form of Catholicism. But the documentary achieves a quietude that a Zen practitioner might wordlessly admire.
A hushed, contemplative film such as Into Great Silence should be judged by two standards. First, does it convey the vision it intends? And second, can it touch viewers who don’t adhere to the doctrine it celebrates? Gröning’s luminous, slo-mo study succeeds on both counts. That doesn’t mean, however, that the nearly three-hour movie won’t drive unsympathetic viewers out of the theater in a much greater hurry than the monks ever demonstrate. Into Great Silence is for people who have already achieved a measure of patience, either through pious reflection or just by watching art films.
As a final note explains, in 1984 Gröning asked for permission to film inside the Carthusians’ charterhouse and waited 16 years for a response. The authorization came with conditions: He was to work without a crew, use natural light, and live according to the strict rules of the order. That meant there would be only a few on-camera remarks. Though the brothers often chant, they rarely speak, except during certain ceremonies and administrative tasks, and on occasional walks outside the building. The Carthusians will not explain themselves, and Gröning doesn’t attempt to do it for them. He just watches, collating shots of the monks’ daily rituals with those of the cycles of nature. His lovely Super-8 footage of rain on roof tiles, dust motes dancing in sunlight, and the arrival of spring all seem to endorse the order’s way of life.
Gröning depicts a few occasions in which the brothers speak, and toward the film’s conclusion an old sightless monk with huge eyebrows states his contentment. (“I often thank God that he let me be blinded,” he says, in one of the moments that will make non-zealots squirm.) The filmmaker doesn’t seek to clarify any practical matters of the monastery’s operation or the monks’ partial acceptance of modernity. The Carthusian order is nearly 1,000 years old, and much of what occurs in the monastery could have happened the same way in the 11th century. Yet the monks supplement candles with electric lights, use a computer for accounting, and add bananas to the food they cultivate and prepare. Did someone warn them that their diet was low in potassium? That’s just not the kind of question Gröning would pose.
In fact, the director largely follows the cinéma vérité model, giving little evidence of his presence. The notable exception is not a voiceover, expert commentary, or talking-head interview (although he does include talking-heads shots of some of the monks). Gröning only deviates from “objectivity” by interjecting short devotional verses, some of which appear repeatedly, like refrains in a liturgy. The effect is to make Into Great Silence as much a prayer service as it is a documentary.
Non-Christians have every right to be skeptical that there’s anything in the movie for them. But in its austerity and other-worldliness, Gröning’s lyrical documentary recalls the strange and powerful films of such French Catholic mystics as Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar) and Alain Cavalier (Thèrése). And its pace, rhythm, and imagery are entirely compatible with the Buddhist parables of Hiroshi Teshigahara (Rikyu) and Bae Yong-Kyun (Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East?), which also value silence, ritual, and nature. The Carthusians worship a specific God, but the beauty of Into Great Silence is universal.