Philip Gröning lived in a monk’s cell in the French Alps for six months to make this — you guessed it — very quiet documentary about the hermits’ lives. According to the press notes, the Carthusians are among the world’s most ascetic orders. (They also make the sticky herb liqueur Chartreuse). But you wouldn’t know this from the movie, which barely contains a spoken word at all.
There is chanting, there is praying, there are the monks’ daily chores, the chopping of wood, the mending of shoes, the preparation of food. The seasons pass: snow falls, ice melts, spring comes, and the fog lifts off the monastery that lies nestled between stunning peaks. The patient observation lasts for nearly three hours; Gröning’s aim is not to explain and analyze the monks, but to approximate their heightened awareness through contemplative filmmaking. "I didn’t want to shoot a film that informs people about a monastery, but a film that transforms into a monastery," Gröning says. "The film should become a monastery."
I’m of two minds about this approach. On the one hand, Into Great Silence is an exquisitely boring, poetic film that uses the carefully observed day-to-day textures of the monk’s austere existence to lull its audience into a meditative state. But there is something of the imitative fallacy to Gröning’s approach. The outward signs of the monk’s lives are just that — they don’t just wander the hallways and kneel: they read, write, think, and pray. Even if they never open their mouths, their heads are filled with words, words we are not privy to. No matter how long he holds his shots, Gröning can only ever show us the surface, never the insides, of what the monks are living for. The film aims to find some sort of vague spirituality in moments of mindfulness, but the Carthusian’s very specific religiosity eludes it.