Witnessing more than two and a half hours of the stillness inside a monastery might sound off-putting, but “Into Great Silence” is such a poetic essay on the slowed-down rhythms of life, that its quiet pleasures carry the viewer along at a pace commensurate with the monks’ own unhurried sense of time. With a painterly eye and a deep appreciation for the hermetic world set apart from, rather than at odds with, modern life, helmer Philip Groening takes the viewer into their cloistered world. Surprisingly exhilarating docu is an ideal fest item, but could also find arthouse champions.
Groening approached the Grand Prior of the Carthusian Order for permission to shoot inside the Great Charterhouse, high up in the French Alps, in the late 1980s, but was told his request was premature. The Order got back to him five years ago, saying they were ready. This delay is itself indicative of the sense of time that permeates the monastery, unhurried yet not forgotten. The conditions imposed on Groening were ones he already envisioned: no interviews, no commentary, no music except for the monks’ own chants and no team — just Groening himself.
The results are like the pleasures of watching a gently flowing stream. Groening spent six months in the monastery, recording the way life inside follows a routine dictated both by daily devotions and seasonal responsibilities: the self-sufficient community has assigned tasks ranging from gardening to shoe repair. Indications of the passing of time come only in shifts from light to dark, and the change of seasons visible from within the confines of the monastery grounds.
Groening’s camera simply shows what the monks themselves see, freed from the distractions of cluttered life. Meals are taken alone and in their cells, except on Sundays and feast days, when the enjoined silence is broken by a few hours of talk in the gardens. For the pic’s first 20 minutes not a human voice is heard — later, when a young novice chants evening prayers, the beauty of that voice, resonating through the dark chapel, strikes the viewer with something approaching awe, contrasted with the silence that surrounds most scenes.
While the docu abounds in beautiful images (patterns formed by the roof tiles, vegetables peeping out of melting snow), Groening isn’t looking for some superficially pretty greeting card view. His compositions are rigidly painterly, the monks in their cells recalling countless works of St. Jerome in his study that take on a stillness reminiscent of canvases by Georges De La Tour. Even silent close-ups of the Carthusians’ faces, staring uninterpretably out at the viewer, can be directly compared with monks’ portraits by the great Flemish masters.
The monks wouldn’t allow artificial light to be brought in, so the penumbral feel of certain scenes, especially within the cells, increases the sense of time standing still. Sound quality, so important in a film emphasizing silence, is first rate, capturing even the quiet landing of snowflakes on white-blanketed ground.