Into Great Silence is a uniquely powerful film I first saw a couple of years ago. I had heard that it was good from various sources, so I ordered it from lovefilm.com. What I didn’t quite realise at first is that the film is completely devoid of commentary, voiceover, or any sound for that matter, save that of the noise generated by the monks going about their monastic tasks. Not very exciting you may think…..but read on!
The film is set in the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps, oft touted as the most ascetic monastery in Christendom. The background to the film being made is fascinating. In 1984, the filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about their way of life. They said they would get back to him – and they did – although it took sixteen years! Alone, without film crew and anything but basic equipment, Gröning lived with the monks for six months; during this time he observed and recorded in the minutest detail all aspects of the Carthusian life — daily prayers, monastic offices, their physical labour and the rare times when they enjoyed free-time together and took outdoor excursions (complete with much chat!).
The simplicity and authenticity of this film is stunning. It allows the viewer to enter in to the rhythm of the Carthusian life unencumbered by visual or auditory distraction. At first, this is quite disconcerting; it leaves the viewer feeling uneasy. But this uneasiness gives way to a calm understanding of the rationale of the film-maker, which is to allow the viewer to take part in the monastic life and experience the intense spirituality of simplicity, solitude and silence for themselves. The shuffling of the monks’ feet on the stone floor and the creaking of the ancient wooden choir stalls transports the viewer in space and time.
Watching, or more accurately, taking part in the Into Great Silence experience is more akin to embarking on an extended meditation than watching a film; it is very much experiential. It is also remarkable in that it highlights just how countercultural the monastic life is, particularly as it is embodied in the Carthusian Order. As I think about this film, I’m reminded of the words of the eminent Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, as he reflected on the value of the monastic life:
Of this there is no doubt, our age and Protestantism in general may need the monastery again, or wish it were there. ‘The monastery’ is an essential dialectical element in Christianity. We therefore need it out there like a navigation buoy at sea in order to see where we are, even though I myself would not enter it. But if there really is true Christianity in every generation, there must also be individuals who have this need.
Into Great Silence is a resounding affirmation of Kierkegaard’s sentiments!
Here is the trailer for the film (courtesy of youtube):