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Into Great Silence

Die grosse Stille, directed by Philip Groening

Read Matthew Arnold's Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse
I have been reading about the German film Die grosse Stille since its release in 2005, mostly because it has won all sorts of European film festival awards. In 1984, director Philip Groening made an official request to the Carthusian monks of the legendary monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, to film a documentary about monastic life there. Since the pace of modern life does not mean much within a cloister, the monks considered the request and ultimately gave their approval -- 16 years later. My friends who live near Grenoble took me to visit La Grande Chartreuse, but you are allowed to visit only the museum, housed in the old monastic buildings, where you can learn about the process of making the Chartreuse liqueur but not actually enter the cloister.

As someone with great admiration for the monastic life (I count myself very lucky to teach music and art history in a school run by a Benedictine abbey), I have been longing to see the movie ever since. It opened on Friday for a brief run at the E Street Cinema, and my favorite Washington Post film reviewer, Desson Thomson, published a lengthy article about it (The Silent Treatment, March 30) in Friday's paper. I have been reading Desson Thomson's reviews since very shortly after I moved to Washington, and I can think of very few movies of which he approved that I have not subsequently liked. Even so, a movie about monastic life, I feared, may not appeal to just anyone. I should never have worried, because Thomson's review expressed perfectly what this movie will likely mean to me:
At first, the silence feels imposing -- practically deafening -- as we watch the documentary "Into Great Silence" and the monks of the Grand Chartreuse monastery praying, reading the Bible or simply sitting in quiet contemplation. But as we become acclimated to this muted atmosphere (we have plenty of time, as the film is nearly three hours long), something extraordinary happens: Our senses sharpen. The whispering of snow outside, the occasional clearing of a throat and -- sweet mercy! -- the clanging of a bell that summons these befrocked Carthusians to prayer reach our ears with a resounding purity. We may not experience their inner glories, but when we hear the monks' Gregorian chants, it's as though we have slipped from our seats into the back pews of Chartreuse.

All movies are about transformation, in a sense, as we focus -- almost reverently -- on the glowing screen before us. But we are accustomed to our emotions being marshaled along with music, snappy editing, special effects. "Into Great Silence" subjects us, instead, to a sort of sensory deprivation -- echoing the ascetic lifestyle of these monks, who are bound to a life of near-silent contemplation aside from weekly conversational breaks. [...] By luring us into their hushed world, filmmaker Philip Groening -- who produced, directed, shot and edited the movie -- subtly provokes us into an active state of observation. We experience the rituals of these men's lives, our heads craned forward and our breath held so we don't disturb their devotions. And as we vicariously participate in their daily rituals, we find ourselves, quite literally, at the ground level of spiritual worship. It's hard to recall a similar documentary that brings viewers so palpably close to that sacred experience. Even such religiously themed commercial successes as "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," which moved their audiences with special-effects technology and star power, seem brassy and superfluous by comparison.
The entire review merits your attention. My own review will follow shortly, as soon as I have found the opportunity to see the movie for myself.

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