Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence)
directed by Philip Groning
(Zeitgeist, 2005)

Deep in the French Alps, as you read this, Carthusian monks are going about the daily business of their monastery as they have since the 16th century. Within monastery walls, there is prayer and contemplation, and the work that is done is done in silence, to make that contemplative prayer possible.

After 16 years of waiting, filmmaker Philip Groning received permission to live with the monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, and Die Grosse Stille (Into Great Silence) is the result.

It is unlike just about anything else to which you'll devote 2-1/2 hours of your life.

Groning took himself and his camera to Grande Chartreuse for several months and walked out with a hypnotic documentary that is meditation on film. There's no voice-over, only one monk speaks to the camera, there's no specialized lighting -- only echoing footsteps, a nagging water drip, the snip of the tailor's shears as he cuts a bolt of cloth.

I admit: I was too fidgety to watch the entirety in one sitting. In what I thought was my silent house, only a contemplative monastery could point out how loud it really is: the hum of the computer, the click of the washing machine, the whirr of the basement furnace. But there's a heartbeat rhythm to the near-silence, as monks go about their daily chores, as the stars rise and move in time-lapse filming outside, as evening prayers are sung in a room lit only by a single votive.

Nothing intrudes as a monk slices celery, its springlike green bursting into the everyday gray, white, black and brown of the monastery. Even the embraces of monks welcoming a pair of postulates open and close at an unhurried pace, matching the rhythm of ritual. Seasons come and go, the monks dip their fingers into a font of holy water on their way to prayer; the water trembles with their passing and returns to stillness.

Groning has created Old Master images in the modern world -- a silence that, by its very existence, is a form of prayer. To me, impatient though I am, it came closer to "film as a religious experience" than movies which more openly preach and cajole. And it doesn't shy away from the fact that, easy as it first seems, this type of monastic life must at times be very hard, even for the most devoted.

If you can allow yourself to slow down enough, just immerse yourself in these solitary lives and wonder: Could I do that, too?

review by
Jen Kopf

14 March 2009

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