Into Great Silence (Two-Disc Set)

Into Great Silence
“The Film Should Become a Monastery” Rating 3.5 Star Rating
From Jürgen Fauth
Philip Gröning lived in a monk’s cell in the French Alps for six months to make this — you guessed it — very quiet documentary about the hermits’ lives. According to the press notes, the Carthusians are among the world’s most ascetic orders. (They also make the sticky herb liqueur Chartreuse). But you wouldn’t know this from the movie, which barely contains a spoken word at all.
There is chanting, there is praying, there are the monks’ daily chores, the chopping of wood, the mending of shoes, the preparation of food. The seasons pass: snow falls, ice melts, spring comes, and the fog lifts off the monastery that lies nestled between stunning peaks. The patient observation lasts for nearly three hours; Gröning’s aim is not to explain and analyze the monks, but to approximate their heightened awareness through contemplative filmmaking. “I didn’t want to shoot a film that informs people about a monastery, but a film that transforms into a monastery,” Gröning says. “The film should become a monastery.”
I’m of two minds about this approach. On the one hand, Into Great Silence is an exquisitely boring, poetic film that uses the carefully observed day-to-day textures of the monk’s austere existence to lull its audience into a meditative state. But there is something of the imitative fallacy to Gröning’s approach. The outward signs of the monk’s lives are just that — they don’t just wander the hallways and kneel: they read, write, think, and pray. Even if they never open their mouths, their heads are filled with words, words we are not privy to. No matter how long he holds his shots, Gröning can only ever show us the surface, never the insides, of what the monks are living for. The film aims to find some sort of vague spirituality in moments of mindfulness, but the Carthusian’s very specific religiosity eludes it.

In the course of the film, two postulant monks (those who join the order on what is initially a probationary basis) are seen taking their initial vows and going through a ritual in which they are assumed into the (religious) community with this status; they are seen putting on the traditional white under-robes, but they wear black outer robes when attending this ceremony, prostrating themselves before the altar in the chapter-house, and getting tonsured afterwards. One of these novice monks is a black man: while he is a visual and social contrast to the majority of the monastery population, which is Caucasian, at one point the camera lingers on a small statue of a black saint as a reminder that the organs of the Catholic church including this one, are open to black people as well.
Monastic life can be full of surprises even to those who were raised Catholic and grew up with a basic understanding of it through formal instruction and retreats. While many of the monks are seen doing very traditional work and manual labor ( traditional tailor shop is shown, as is a spartan kitchen and a small scale organic farm), a senior monk is shown in an office using an IBM ThinkPad laptop computer, surrounded by statements and bills.
The dwindling pool of people considering religious vocations initially seems to have affected the life and future survival of the monastery: some of the older monks are seen doing rather heavy jobs for such old dudes: a white-bearded monk works in the kitchen, shovels snow, and does the gardening. While older monks seem to predominate, a few younger faces are later shown, as is a younger monk doing what many of the others probably regard as one of the more physically challenging jobs: splitting firewood, dividing logs into precise lengths with a hacksaw.
While the Carthusian monks’ habit is white wool, monks doing outdoor and kitchen work are seen to wear blue robes, some of them denim, some of them patched. No explanation is given, except the implication that these are simply the monastic equivalent of dungarees, the blue dye being simply there to conceal ground-in dirt. The lack of explanation of this and some other seemingly minor aspects of the monks’ daily lives, is unfortunate and detracts from the movie because of the importance placed upon symbolism by this community of Carthusians themselves. In one of the rare scenes where they talk, they discuss a ritualized hand-washing in which they are seen to engage before they enter the Refectory, where they eat together. The monks all line up and run a trickle of cold water over their hands from a tap extending from a tank adorned with Christian symbolism: initially I thought they had Holy Water on tap, but they all dry their hands on a long, looped, roller towel. Other monasteries of their order vary in this: one the monks talk about has eliminated this had-washing, another has more “washbasins” to accomplish this.
The monks of this community _could_, by consensus, vote, or decreee of the abbott; eliminate it. Some of the monks consider it “useless” (presumably, they have modern plumbing facilities and other sinks elsewhere in the monastery), but the majority of the community feel it is important to retain the symbolism of this ritualized, albeit optional behavior.

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