By Roger Repohl
NEW YORK - Into Great Silence, a documentary on the daily life of the Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, could have been done the formulaic way, the Ken Burns way. It could have started with a brief history of this nearly thousand-year-old Christian religious order and its founder St. Bruno, while the camera pans carefully across illuminated manuscripts. It could have drawn a computer schematic of the monastery complex, with its rows of private cells arranged like little townhouses around the chapel and refectory. It could have featured commentary by weighty scholars and wry monks. It could have trailed the inhabitants through a typical day and dropped in on the winemaster for a taste of their famous green liqueur. And the whole thing could have been bathed in Gregorian chants, with voiceover by some sonorous French actor.
This film has none of that. In fact, it is rather misleading to call it a documentary at all. Though it is a documentation, it conveys no information. It is more like a work of art, a living illuminated manuscript to be contemplated. It engages the right brain, not the left.
From the start, you know things will be different. A young monk kneels in prayer at the prie-dieu in his cell. After some minutes, he stands. More minutes pass, all in silence. Already the viewer, hot off the bustling streets, tenses up: Enough! Get on with it! But there is never enough; with few exceptions, the succeeding scenes are equally, uncomfortably long, unbroken by narration or musical background. After two hours, you’re hoping the segment you’re currently viewing will be the last, so you can return to the bustling streets, find a noisy restaurant, wolf down a big dinner and a couple drinks, make witty remarks, and convince yourself you’ve got a life.
But on and on it goes until you are sore from sitting, and then an old, blind monk appears on the screen, breaking the silence at last, telling the camera that his blindness was a blessing, that he is not afraid to die, that he doesn’t understand how anyone can find meaning in life aside from God. And the silence descends again.
When your 162 minutes of vicarious monastic confinement are over, you get up unsteadily. Your companion tries the usual post-movie line, “Well, what did you think?” You shrug and stumble on. In the noisy restaurant you flippantly say you wish you’d spent your money on an action film. And yet the images linger in your brain. For hours, maybe days, you find yourself moving more deliberately, more peacefully: The monks have leached into your system like some benevolent bacteria. You’ve returned from another world - perhaps from the other world.
This is no ordinary documentary because the German filmmaker Philip Groening (presumably no relation to Matt, the man who gave us “The Simpsons”) is no ordinary documentarian. He relentlessly pursued the idea for this project for 16 years before the reclusive community approved, and then with restrictions: no artificial light, no narration, no incidental music - and if the film were to be entered in festivals, no competition for awards.
For four months, Groening lived with the monks, following their austere routine both personally and with his camera. And something like a hermit himself, he produced the film entirely alone, as writer, director, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor.
In more than one sense, this is a “silent film.” The monks by their rule converse only when necessary for work or spiritual direction, except for their weekly communal walks in the countryside. Even necessary conversation is forbidden from night till morning, the period known as “the Great Silence,” from which the film derives its German title, Die grosse Stille (one wonders, though not too long, why the action-preposition “into” was added in English). And it seems quite intentional that the only person who speaks to the camera cannot see.
It is also a silent film cinematographically. Groening consciously employs the devices used by early filmmakers to communicate by sight alone: the lingering closeups, the meticulous attention to detail, the impressionistic use of grainy Super 8 film for certain scenes, and even the screen titles (world-renouncing Bible verses, some frequently repeated).
Images of water and light are everywhere: the red sanctuary lamp flickering in the night; the ultra-closeup of the small stone font at the chapel entrance; the rain making psychedelic rings in a pond; a monk’s metal bowl, washed and tipped on its side to dry, with a droplet of water slowly forming on the lip.
Despite the dearth of speech and music, this is not a “silent” film at all; sound, in fact, is one of its most powerful elements. Every ring of the chapel bell, every footstep, every call of bird or drop of rain pounds upon your ears as surely as it must upon the monks’ own. It is only when one does not speak that one begins to hear.
Repetition is another device Groening uses to evoke the timeless experience of monastic life. The film starts out in winter, with stunning aerial shots of the monastery buried in snow, moves through the seasons, and concludes once more in winter. Within the walls, the daily routine goes on: Over and over, the monk on kitchen detail delivers meals to his brothers’ cells from a wooden push-cart; over and over, the community assembles in the pitch-dark chapel to chant the Night Office; over and over, monks are seen alone in their cells, meditating and reading and eating and washing their cups and bowls.
Groening also gives ample glimpses of monastic labor: the old bearded tailor, cutting a novice’s habit out of whole cloth; the ruddy-faced barber, shaving his fellows’ heads with an electric shears while keeping a full head of hair on himself; monks splitting firewood for their cells; the prior at his desk, poring over paperwork; a frail old man stripped of his habit, receiving a massage of salve from the gentle hands of the young infirmarian.
There are some diversions as well, one or two, charming in their simplicity: a brother in the barn, talking to (with?) a collection of demanding cats; and in the second winter, a long-distance take of the monks skiing down a tall hill in their white habits and on just their boots, tumbling into the snow amid gales of laughter.
The chronicle is broken several times by head-shots of individual monks, held for ten long seconds each and grouped in threes: living portraits, as it were, and quite obviously an ironic play on the “talking heads” of the conventional documentary. The subjects sit before the camera silently, self-consciously, solemn-faced, blinking. Unlike the rest of the film, in which the camera all but disappears, this at first seems a blatant invasion of their privacy, an attempt to steal their souls. But eventually you overcome your own embarrassment and begin to examine those faces, looking for a hint of why such ordinary-looking men are doing something so extraordinary. In the end, they conquer: they’ve not only kept their own souls, they’ve exposed yours.
For most of us multitasking moderns, nervously checking our cell phones while punching up tunes on our iPods and slugging down a Starbucks, this film is a test of endurance, demanding a focus and attentiveness few now possess. It reveals just how far our crazed pursuit of everything all the time masks our meaninglessness and keeps us chronically depressed. As the verse from the Hebrew Bible, displayed repeatedly on the screen, has it: God is not in the whirlwind but in a whisper.