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BY Steven D. Greydanus
Into Great Silence (2005) - Pick
For me, this week’s two-disc release of Into Great Silence
is the DVD of the year. No other film this year, and possibly in my years as a
film critic, has had so transforming an effect on me. I plan to watch Into
Great Silence every Lent, possibly for the rest of my life.
Like life in a Carthusian monastery, with its strict
asceticism and deep spirituality, Into Great Silence is an exercise in rigor
and discipline that becomes a euphoric experience of joy and inner peace.
Shooting for more than six months in 2002 in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in
the French Alps, the head monastery of the Carthusian order, filmmaker Philip
Groning limited himself entirely of the images and sounds of monastic life,
reflecting the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.
There is no voiceover narration, no score or soundtrack of added music to steer
The result is more than a documentary of monastic life. It is
a spiritual voyage, a pilgrimage into the inner meaning and experience of
monastic life, of the rigors and joys of contemplative life.
Like a litany, the film returns again and again to the same
Scripture texts, the same places, the same themes. Yet there is also a sense of
unfolding, of revelation. The film moves from winter through spring and summer
and back to winter, but the experience of the second winter is profoundly
different from the first.
Into Great Silence is not simply about spiritual rigor or
inner peace. It is about nothing less than the object of faith, God himself.
Many spiritually aware films paint a picture of God (like Ecclesiastes) largely
in silhouette, through a sense of his felt absence, silence, or hiddenness.
Into Great Silence movingly affirms God’s findability, if you will, for those
who seek him.
What can a film about cloistered monks have to say to our
overcaffeinated, information-saturated 24/7 world? A great deal.
Into Great Silence was a great success in secular Europe and
a smash hit in New York City. In our post-everything Western world, it’s a
wholly unexpected witness to the continuing power of the historic structures of
our shared Christian heritage to speak to us today.
The two-disc set comes with a number of extras, including
nearly two hours of additional scenes. There’s a 53-minute Night Prayer video
and a segment on the making of the Chartreuse liqueurs. In a surprisingly
chatty interview, a monk at the distillery reveals that the monks use more than
130 different plants before clamming up: “There is no need to seek to know more
— we’re not supposed to tell.” There’s also extended footage of the interview
with the blind monk emphasizing love of God and neighbor — and musing about the
environmental dangers of nuclear power plants.
Other extras include an insightful video statement on the
film by Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture
and background information on the Carthusian order.