Friday, March 30, 2012

Movie Review: Into Great Silence

Into Great Silence is a documentary on the Carthusian monks, one of the most ascetic religious orders in the Catholic Church, and one of my favorite movies of all time.   The movie has no narrator, no added music or effects, only a few hours of the monks, who have taken a vow of silence, going about their daily lives.  German director Phillip Groning contacted the prior of the Carthusian motherhouse, asking if he could do a documentary within their walls.  He said they were not ready.  Sixteen years later, Groning was contacted and the monks were ready.  The movie he made is beyond words and can only be described inadequately.  I personally found it to be one of the most peaceful experiences of my life.  Most viewers will either be completely entranced or completely bored.  It's hard to imagine an in-between.  The movie has not been everyone's cup of tea, but this does not lessen its greatness.  It is a nearly flawless portrayal of monastic life.  The work that went into it is amazing to fathom.  While the main focus of the movie seems to be the silence, this is a silence geared towards seeking the Christian God, the Holy Trinity.  The last thing to note about this movie is it requires a special setting and disposition when watching, almost unlike any other movie.  Into Great Silence is a sublime masterpiece, that will challenge and reward many.

Into Great Silence is a direct cinema documentary on the Carthusian monks.  There is no added music or sound effects, only the monks going about their daily lives.  They chant the liturgy of the hours, do manual labor, pray alone in silence, eat meals and go for walks and occasionally speak, among other things.  The aesthetic is beautifully austere and carries with it the rhythm of a monastery.  The movie occasionally uses grainy footage and time-lapse photography, the latter towards more meaningful ends.

The second time I saw this movie, this time being ready for it, I was blown away.  It is so beautifully mundane.  It is so elemental.  It is an opportunity to figuratively stop and smell the roses.  The stillness and the quiet of it just put one into a wonderful trance.  It is a world of constant present.  At the time, I almost wondered how anyone could be happy doing anything else.  On another occasion, I was watching this and I was so pulled in, I was tempted to watch it twice in a row!

Most viewers of this movie will either love it or hate it.  If you have made it through the first twenty minutes without getting bored, you can watch this all day.  If you are bored at this mark, the rest of the movie will be a familiar tough slog.

Many people have complained that this movie is too slow or boring.  I understand their opinion.  They are entitled to it, but I think such complaints are a matter of personal taste rather than any genuine flaw in the movie.  This is a documentary on one of the most ascetic religious orders in the world.  It should be challenging, esoteric and even a little "inaccessible."  This is the life of the monks.  Even the monks themselves got to see the movie and liked it.  To make this movie mainstream or "entertaining," the subject matter would have to be stretched and sold out so hard.  Not everyone will like this movie, but one hundred percent consensus is not the standard of greatness.  There is also the complaint that the movie should have more interviews and scenes of the monks talking.  Talking is not what these monks do.  A movie full of talking heads would not give the feel of a monastery.  A last complaint is that we should learn more facts about the monks and their order, that the movie does nothing to demystify the Carthusians.  Once again, a slew of facts would take away from the feel of a monastery.  If you want facts, go to wikipedia.  Any demystification of Carthusian spirituality would be so partial as to be dishonest.  These men and their spiritual lives can't be reduced to a weekly schedule of rituals or a few minutes of catechesis.  Instead of a movie that gives us a false sense of understanding, it leaves us with an honest sense of mystery.  Turning it into a "regular," factual documentary would make it into a History Channel show.  History Channel programs are not high art, merely watchable relaters of facts.  A conventional approach would have given us the facts we wanted and then we would move on.  The mysterious and more ambiguous approach renders a more re-watchable movie that gives up new secrets every time.

While this movie borders on perfection, I personally have two claims against it.  The first is that I did not like the grainy shots that show up from time to time.  They were meant to create a sort of rhythm with the change, but they feel gimmicky and take away from the austere aesthetic of the rest of the film.  My second issue, is that despite portraying a Catholic religious order, the movie has no masses in it.  The monks are praying the liturgy of the hours on numerous occasions, but there is no mass shown.  The Mass is the highest form of Catholic prayer.

Some folks commenting on this movie, either in a spirit of ecumenism, or undermining Christianity, or just wanting to promote silence itself, seem to miss or downplay the Catholic and Christian element of these monks.  The Carthusians are a Catholic Christian religious order.  They come to silence not to "find themselves" or "become one with the universe," but to seek union with the Holy Trinity, the God of the Bible.  Silence is not the end, but a means.  They also pray and offer penance for souls.  The movie clearly shows the Christian element as the monks pray liturgy of the hours, chanting the psalms in Latin or pray the Office of Readings, hearing what are obviously Christian writings.  There is also a part where one monk is clearly praying the rosary and another scene of a Eucharistic procession.  While Carthusian spirituality is not entirely dissimilar to other, non-Christian spiritualities, and non-Christians can enjoy this movie, the core of their spirituality is Christianity, not silence.

The work that must have gone into making this movie is truly impressive.  How did Groning decide in the editing room what footage to use?  Most of the footage here is "nothing."  How did he possibly create such an incredible and cohesive whole of "something"?  I've read that he had over one hundred hours of footage to choose from with no script.  All of this leaves out the six months he worked alone, shooting in the monastery.  It is amazing that the work turned out as anything.

I'm often a bit of a purist when it comes to watching movies, but this one especially deserves the right type of viewing.  This movie can not be viewed in a fully lit living room with people hanging out and talking.  It is utterly worthless to watch this movie not in silence.  The unity of silence is what gives the images, mostly mundane images of "nothing," any meaning.  It is also worthless to watch this movie in short pieces.  You can not get the feeling of a monastery in five minutes.  Also, no one should come to this with the expectations of "movie."  This will not engage as entertainment.  It is barely a movie.  It is three hours spent with the Carthusian monks.  It should be come to as one would come to a time of quiet prayer.  Remember also that distractions are a part of the process and should not render your attention permanently lost or the movie lost.  This movie will inspire many thoughts.  The monks aren't kneeling there thinking "I'm kneeling...  I'm kneeling... I'm kneeling..."

Into Great Silence is a movie that I feel most adults should see at least once and attempt to appreciate.  It is truly amazing. 

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