Skip to content

May 17, 2007

2

Movie Review – Into Great Silence (2007)

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.

4 stars


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. May 18 2007

    My enjoyment of this film was marred by a particularly rude group of theater patrons. A couple in front of us constantly chatted during the film while another group a couple rows ahead were unrelenting with the sounds of soda slurping and candy wrapper cringling. So the first third minutes of the film was spent trying to get acclimated.

    The second third of the film, my lack of sleep from the night before caught up with me and I found myself dozing off unable to concentrate.

    But, in the final third of the film, I got it. Some of louder patrons had already walked out on the film. And I had an epiphany during a scene of rain water hitting a shallow stream, forming expanding circles. I felt as though I had reached of state beyond thinking and lapsed into the feeling of just “being.” This is a film that needs to be seen in the theater, even at the risk of rude patrons.

    I did like the film, but I felt it could have been 40 minutes shorter (164 minutes is quite a commitment) and still gotten the point across. I also feel I needed slightly more structure. I’d still give the film 3 stars though.

  2. laura furst
    May 18 2007

    I would have to compromise and give it 3.5 stars.
    It was a great movie- but too long, and I wanted a little more insight.
    I wish I could have enjoyed the quiet and white noise more but as Rishi said, our fellow patrons were clueless-
    NOTE TO ALL-
    TALKING even whispering in the theater is a no no ALWAYS.
    One or two very quiet whispers of course always occur-
    but conversation is not for a movie theater- rent a movie in your own home or get help from Miss Manners.

Comment