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The Independent Critic

The Brothers of the Carthusian Order in France
Philip Groning
169 Mins.
 "Into Great Silence" Review 

The Lord said, ?Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper." - 1 Kings 19: 11-13

"Into Great Silence" is a gentle whisper of a film set inside the Grande Chartreuse Monastery nestled majestically beneath the French Alps near Grenoble.

German filmmaker Phillip Groning first requested to shoot "Into Great Silence" in 1984. The Carthusian Order of Chartreuse, a monastic order widely recognized as Catholicism's most fundamental and strict order founded by St. Bruno in 1084, replied that they were not ready for him.

16 years later, they were ready.

For 6 months, Groning lived inside the monastery under the strictest of filmmaking rules:

Only he was invited. Groning would have to be cameraman, director, writer and crew.

There could be no artificial lighting. Every shot contained within the film is of natural light...sunlight, candles or complete darkness.

There could be no interviews.

The result becomes more meditation than documentary.

"Into Great Silence" isn't a film that reveals the inner-workings of a man who commits to such a rigorous lifestyle.

"Into Great Silence" isn't a film that even simply observes these monks in their everyday lives.

"Into Great Silence" fully immerses those experiencing the film into the monastic order of Grande Chartreuse. While one may not, necessarily, be enduring this order's everyday rigors one is experiencing, at least for the film's nearly 3-hour running time, a nearly complete sensory inner silence, a stillness and an uncommon simplicity to which Americans are seldom exposed.

The monks we experience in "Into Great Silence" are not characters at the whim of a well-intentioned filmmaker.

They are monks.

They are, indeed, introduced to us individually. Yet, even their introduction is experienced more as prayer than presentation. Each monk is shown facing the camera, in utter silence...some fidget awkwardly under this close observation, some look downward, some simply observe and, yes, one or two NEARLY smile.

There is a joy contained within "Into Great Silence," but it is not the everyday joy to which we've become accustomed. It is not the joy of laughter and celebration and festivity. It is the joy of communal living, sacrificing one's entire being to serving God and the joy of true intimacy with one another and with God.

"Into Great Silence" may very well be one of the most intimate, tender films ever created.

Without a soundtrack or a musical score, it is the everyday lives of these monks that becomes the film's soundtrack. It is a full 20 minutes into the film before even a sound is this time, the viewer is so fully immersed that each and every sound becomes jarring to one's senses.

As you have reasoned by now, the brothers of Chartreuse observe a vow of simplicity, celibacy and, most notably, a vow of silence.

This vow of silence is revealed with great conviction in the daily lives of the brothers. They live, work, eat and pray in silence. This silence is broken only during a 45-minute morning mass and a 30-minute evening mass during which traditional rituals are spoken and Gregorian chants are sung simply, hauntingly and intimately.

The brothers, too, share a Sunday meal together and, following this meal, are allowed four-hours of relaxation, a walk and, yes, a period of conversation with one another.

In a certain, very minimalist way, there is a semblance of a plot contained within "Into Great Silence" as we silently observe two initiates including a young African man, the only African among the mostly older, white Order. Yet, this racial integration is never mentioned, addressed or treated any differently than the rest of the film. Here, young Benjamin becomes Brother Dom-Marie Pierre.

Yet, while the two men are captured onscreen at multiple points, "Into Great Silence" is not about their initiation or their journey into brotherhood. Instead, it seems a merely coincidental starting point and, perhaps, a place for Groning to center audience's attention.

Perhaps the greatest joy in experiencing "Into Great Silence" is being able to experience both the internal and external moments of humanity contained within the lives of these isolated brothers.

Several times, Groning captures a airplane flying overhead the medieval monastery...a stark contrast of technology versus simplicity. Likewise, the simple living monks do, at times, utilize technology for its functional simplicity rather than for its convenience. The Order's accountant, for example, utilizes an obviously older laptop to track Order finances and one brother utilizes a small, electronic keyboard on which he practices his chants.

The humanity of the Order is also revealed, perhaps most touchingly, in the carrying out of their spiritual disciplines...disciplines that, somehow, reminded me of those moments in my own life I value most.

The brothers give each other haircuts, silently, yet intently and attentively. As someone who experienced brain damage at birth, I watched these moments experiencing in myself how much I love haircuts.

I love the feeling of the razor against my scalp and the gentle, sometimes nearly tear-inducing tenderness on a part of me that hurts, always hurts. It is easily worth the $12 I give Great Clips monthly for the experience.
In many ways, it is a spiritual experience in one of the least expected places.

So, it is with moments behind the walls of Chartreuse. The haircuts, the meals, the sharing of chores, the masses and prayers, and, yes, the Sunday meals and walks together build together a silent, communal experience that is filled with love and joy and commitment and and discipline.

There are even moments of unbridled giddiness, as evidenced by a beautiful scene of the brothers' spontaneous act of playfully sliding down a hillside of snow, laughing and enjoying this unity with God and one another.

As one could expect from a film with no artificial light or special effects, Into Great Silence" is a wildly mixed bag of cinematography. At times, Groning's camera work is sparkling and crystal clear. Other times, one strains to discern the image ahead. Yet, somehow, all the images together feel like poetry and prose, prayer and meditation combined.

Groning often separates his scenes by utilizing printed texts of simple prayers and scriptures. These texts, in French translated into both German and English, repeat themselves throughout the film...much like the way in which the prayers, meditations, rituals and responsibilities repeat themselves in the lives of the brothers. So, too, repeated nature scenes of rain, snow, flowers and clouds serve as a segue thematically for "Into Great Silence."

While the brothers of Chartreuse are never formally introduced, by becoming so fully immersed into their everyday lives we do, nevertheless, come to care about them. I held my chair gently hoping that an elder brother digging snow wouldn't fall...I prayed peace for an elderly blind brother who seemed to be readying himself for death...I wept as I watched the brothers sharing an "embrace of peace" upon the initiation of their novice brothers.

"Into Great Silence" is, perhaps moreso than any other cinematic experience, a transcendent, spiritual experience. It is among the most deeply intimate, innocent and vulnerable films ever created and, most certainly, a film that simply and vividly, without bias or agenda, calls the viewer into an experience of community, communion and meditation.

- Richard Propes
  The Independent Critic