Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence is pure cinema at its purest and most exalted. Its achievement virtually defies commentary; a critic has only words with which to illuminate a film, but how can what is wrought in silence be illumined by words?
Filmmakers from Bresson to Tarkovsky to Malick to the Dardenne brothers have sought creative freedom in formal austerity, assiduously stripping away the superfluous and superficial to create space for the essential, the transcendent.
Into Great Silence is both a work in a kindred spirit and an immersion in a divesting of inessentials — not merely as a creative discipline or aesthetic philosophy, but as an entire way of life, a world unto itself.
The “great silence” of the title refers to the discipline of silence observed by many contemplative religious orders, specifically the 10 or 12 hours between the last words spoken at evening services and the first words spoken at morning services.
Into Great Silence is an odyssey, or perhaps a pilgrimage, into a world of such silence: the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, head monastery of the Carthusian order, where Gröning received unprecedented permission to shoot in 2002. (This permission came more than 16 years after Gröning first approached the general prior with the proposal.)
Gröning stayed with the Carthusians for about half a year, observing (in both senses of the word) their rigorous way of life, from their discipline of silence to their grueling routine of prayer, work and sleep. Working alone, using only available light, he shot for approximately three hours a day, eventually amassing more than 120 hours of material.
The formal rigor of the finished 164-minute film, mirroring the ascetic strictness of the monks themselves, offers none of the didactic or expositional context associated with typical documentaries. No voiceover narration expounds the history of the monastery buildings or the Carthusian order. No captions introduce us to the events or rituals we see.
The result is more than a documentary of monastic life. It is a transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature, on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythms of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.
For all its asceticism, Into Great Silence is an exquisitely beautiful film. Precise compositions and splendid use of light at times overtly suggest the paintings of Vermeer, while stunning use of the natural beauty around the monastery may evoke Malick or Tarkovsky.
Like the monks’ lives, the film is cyclical and repetitive. Yet there is also movement, direction, structure. Into Great Silence opens in bleak midwinter amid austerity, frozenness, impenetrability. The silence is so profound you can hear the falling of snowflakes. The monks go about their business, but we see them as outsiders. There is no entering their world.
But there is. A pair of postulants are received as novices and take the tonsure. An extraordinary scene reveals an older monk enjoying a surreptitious bit of fun with some furry friends. There are also other small signs of life, of coming spring. An icebound succulent clings to life. An elderly monk walks into a snow-covered field and begins shoveling, seemingly at random; eventually we see he is clearing garden beds for planting.
At last there is melting snow and running water. Spring comes to the mountains. And presently we realize that the monks’ lives no longer seem so impenetrable. Severity and rigor yield to familiarity, fullness, even joy. At last we see the secret of the monks: In rigor and discipline there is freedom and fulfillment.
The film could end there — but no. The seasons continue to turn. And yet it is impossible to return to the early sense of severity and impenetrability. Such is the film’s achievement by this point that one sees the monastery and the very world with new eyes.
Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many spiritually aware films — The Seventh Seal, Crimes and Misdemeanors — are about God’s absence or silence. Here is a film that dares to explore the possibility of finding God, of a God who is there for those who seek him with their whole hearts.
The film offers an implicit challenge, not so much to the trappings of modernity — modern technology crops up here and there in the monks’ world, occasionally to humorous effect — as to the spiritual disconnectedness and social fragmentation of a world in decay, to the postmodern incapacity for commitment and sacrifice, to the dissonance and haphazardness of life as we know it.
Into Great Silence makes no apology for the monks’ traditional Christian milieu. One of the few long sustained speeches in the film is a chanted excerpt from a patristic treatise on the Holy Spirit — a catechesis in Trinitarian theology. In the film’s lone aside to the camera, a blind monk offers some simple but piercing observations on Christian happiness, abandonment to God’s providential care, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world.
Yet Gröning isn’t preaching. One need not be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to appreciate the beauty and depth the film finds in this way of life.
A popular quotation attributed to St. Francis of Assisi advises, “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” Into Great Silence is the antithesis of an evangelistic film, yet for receptive viewers of varying creeds — or none — Groening’s achievement reveals the beauty and power of this most hidden, yet unexpectedly human, world.
Like Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Andrei Rublev, in which transcendence in art is both contemplated and achieved, Into Great Silence perfectly joins form and function, subject and method. It’s a rare perfection in a film.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.