Last night, I saw Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s highly praised documentary showing life in one of the most ascetic Roman Catholic monasteries, the Carthusian Order‘s Grande Chartreuse. The film, which is about three hours long, isn’t really about the Carthusians; instead, it shows the rhythms and content of their daily, contemplative lives. I was really taken with it.
As the name of the film suggests, the Carthusians don’t speak much. The film runs about three hours, but there’s almost no dialog—maybe just two or three minutes altogether. Instead, the viewer hears chants, the sounds of daily tasks, and a lot of silence. This is not at all an intimate portrait of the monks’ lives. The camera keeps a respectful distance, and the visuals are mostly of prayer, nature scenes (the Grande Chartreuse is in the French Alps), worship, and work. Occasionally, the camera will focus directly, and a little uncomfortably so, on the monks, but it’s difficult to get any sense at all of what motivates these men.
Watching Into Great Silence was an unusual movie-going experience. I didn’t really feel like I was watching a story, or being shown some point-of-view about a topic, so much as I felt like I was experiencing some sort of vicarious contemplation. I went to the theater right after work; after the first very, very quiet 30 minutes, my heart rate had slowed and the tension was gone from my shoulders. And I still had 150 minutes of Into Great Silence to go.
Into Great Silence is highly recommended.