by HELEN GEIB
Into Great Silence is an extraordinary film. It is a documentary chronicling life in a Carthusian monastery without annotation or embellishment. It is extraordinary in its subject and its technique.
The documentarian (singular, no crew, almost no equipment) recorded the monks’ largely unvarying daily regimen over a period of some months. The first thing that hits you is that there’s no music. Into Great Silence opens and closes in silence, with mostly silence in between. There’s no music, no narration, no interviews, no archival footage, no explanatory text. I learned this monastery is in France when I heard the monks speaking French; I inferred it was in the Alps from the views of the mountains outside. Into Great Silence reveals many things about the monastery and the order, but without using any of the customary tools of a documentary.
Though it may appear so at the surface, Into Great Silence is not artless. To the contrary, every aspect of the film is carefully chosen and designed to transport the audience into the experience of this life. And not simply the physical experience of the daily routine and surroundings, but the emotional experience of a freely assumed ascetic, strictly regimented and nearly voiceless life devoted to prayer, study and labor.
The movie is constructed primarily of long, unbroken takes filmed from a stationary vantage point. The documentarian would choose a spot to put his camera- against the wall of a cell; at the end of a hallway; the back of the chapel; to the side of a worktable – and then simply film whatever happened in that space. The transitions from one scene to the next keep pace with the monks’ deliberate, unhurried movements.
This primary record of daily life is broken at intervals by three series of images. The first series is nature photos of the mountain setting, the snow, flowers. The second is a group of brief readings in text, set against a black background, and repeated in an irregular pattern. Both affirm the peculiar quality of the Carthusian rule of being outside of time. Into Great Silence is constructed to evoke that sensation, and indeed, as I watched I felt I had lost all sense of how much time had passed; it was a simultaneously disconcerting and liberating sensation. Short of shadowing the monks, as the documentarian did, I cannot imagine any way to experience this singular way of life more fully than is provided by this film.
The third series of images is video portraits of the monks. The monks look straight ahead into the camera. Most remain completely motionless, while the rest betray only a slight restlessness under the camera’s gaze. The overriding impression is of inscrutability. At times, I longed for interviews to give me insight into these men. How did they come here? What does this life give them? Those are questions that exist outside of this world, and it is one of the strengths of this remarkable film that it does not give into the temptation to try to answer them.
Who is the audience for this film? Anyone with a serious interest in cinema should see it. The subject is of interest to anyone with a curiosity about religious practices. All Christians, for the depiction of a devotion that was an important focus of Christian religious life for many centuries, and Catholics for the intimate look at a living part of the Church.
Those are the reasons I went to see Into Great Silence, and I would recommend it to anyone on that basis, but it became more than that for me. There is one, very brief interview in the film, with a blind, elderly monk. He testifies to the joy of a life devoted to the prayerful love of God. At that moment and at many others, I was overwhelmed by the beauty and grace of the Carthusian rule. Into Great Silence is inspirational and profoundly moving.