Silence has always functioned as a form of resistance, but perhaps never more so than it does today, when being “unreachable” is a cardinal sin and the flood of sound and fury coursing through modern life rises every year. “The silent treatment” can be the most heinous of punishments because it feels almost inhuman, though for the subjects of Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s boldly patient, painstaking meditation on the cloistered life, that’s not a bad thing. “Behold, I have become human,” is the lament of one of the many quoted religious passages “. . . join me in becoming God.” The 162-minute film begins with a pointillist Super-8 profile of a monk at prayer in his cell, where the flood so familiar to our lives—and our films—has been slowed to the metronomic splats of water coming from a nearby spigot. At length, the monk rises, and attempts to seal off the flow altogether.
Gröning became interested in making a film about the Carthusian monks at France’s Grande Chartreuse monastery in 1984, and wrote them saying so; in 2000 he got his reply, and the all-clear. Well, semi-clear: In the six months he spent at the 17th-century compound, Gröning could only use natural light, had to abide by monastery rules, and was allowed no crew. The result is less a documentary—intent as they are on learning—than a Dogme treatment (there is also no voiceover or soundtrack) of some hermits keeping it real in the French Alps, interspersed with actual dogma in the form of scriptural and philosophical snippets, several of which are repeated and built into the cumulative rhythms of the film. Though he has made an even more pious tract than fellow Catholic director Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the experience is more edifying as an act of cinematic resistance. There is solidarity (and satisfaction) in its aesthetic rigor.
Natural light is used to euphoric effect, inevitably summoning the old masters, and Gröning’s frames are balanced and symmetrical, in Renaissance-ready emulation of God’s perfection. The whimsy of Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis flashes forth in the camaraderie of the monks’ weekly outdoor interactions, while the tightly bound interiors recall the (unlikely) visual
psychology of The Empire Strikes Back. But where Empire‘s Luke and Leia were forever racing down hallways, hitting dead-ends like so many psychic reprimands, the Carthusians walk with steady purpose, certain of their destination.
When two dozen monks move into a chapel for midnight mass, the first human sounds come in the form of chanting, as a little red flame flickers through the complete darkness. It’s a moment both of surrender—and this film requires surrender—and invitation. From there Into Great Silence moves into the realm of humble observation. Gröning traces the passing of the seasons with beauty shots of God’s creations, from snow drifts and rain puddles to flower petals and kitten whiskers, while life inside is constructed as a series of human set pieces: monk cuts a new robe from a bolt of white fabric, monk mops the floor, monk gets a haircut, and—big finish—monk eats lunch by his window. The simplicity begins to seduce, so that when a nosegay of celery arrives in the kitchen, brilliant and translucent green against the clay and gray of its surroundings, the mere fact of it feels like a revelation. The point, however, is solidly made by the two-hour mark, and epiphany fatigue sets in; the more gimlet-eyed may turn to thoughts of heresy, or at least tire of exalting the supposedly pure existence of a bunch of men playing house on a hill, oblivious (and useless) to the world of need and suffering beneath them.