The idea of “Into Great Silence” is an intriguing, risky one: This movie goes inside a famous monastery in France and, for nearly three hours of screen time, simply observes the daily life of the monks.
Their existence is almost entirely speechless. Indeed, the opening 20 minutes of this movie go by without a word being spoken. I found myself wondering whether we would hear any words at all, at which point a liturgical chant suddenly breaks the silence.
German filmmaker Philip Groning spent six months filming inside and outside the monastery of Grand Chartreuse, which is located in an unbelievably picturesque corner of the Alps. He applies no storyline to the life there. We watch the rounds of contemplative existence for the monks.
Some of these actions are expected: praying, studying sacred texts, gathering for Mass in a darkened chapel.
Other daily chores are more humdrum, although there’s something about watching a monk prepare food that is somehow different from the way I make turkey chili. And there’s an oddly charming sequence where a monk goes out in the snow to uncover patches of garden for early seed planting.
Groning could not use artificial lighting within the monastery, which actually works to his advantage. The soft light coming in through windows looks like a painting, the visual equivalent of the hushed sound within the thick stone walls of the place.
He also uses the darkness of the chapel at night to emphasize what a single candle looks like aglow in a large dark room, an eerie vision that underlines the spiritual purpose of these solitary men keeping the light of their God illuminated.
Scenes of the monks taking a break from their most rigorous obligations are almost giddy by contrast. Once a week, the elder monks break for an hour of conversation, during which they sound, well, like guys who’ve been waiting a week to talk.
At 162 minutes, “Into Great Silence” wants to completely immerse you in its experience. I have to confess I felt restive toward the end; the film truly provides no semblance of story, except perhaps the gradual change from winter to spring.
Trying to watch the film on DVD would probably be fruitless, because it’s too easy to break the spell in your home. The film’s meditative state forces you to appreciate things – like the way silence isn’t really silence, but a rich world of footsteps and wind and snow melting into rivulets of water.
The Grand Chartreuse monastery in France is the scene for “Into Great Silence.”